Darkness by Lord Byron
First published: 1816

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;--a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought--and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails--men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress--he died.
The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died--
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful--was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir'd before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.

We’re driving after dark, under overcast skies, only able to see in a short, narrow cone lit by the car’s headlights. Occasionally, and without warning, the frigid glow of soft drink vending machines stabs through; arctic beasts stationed beside unseen service centres and tire vendors and lonely nurseries. The buildings’ lights have been darkened, allowing the forest’s seeping shadows to reclaim humanity’s poxy brick and timber boxes from the roadside landscape. Yet our icy dispensers of candied water are immune to this ebony onslaught, their cold beams franticly reaching us across the void, clawing at us; a soundless, despairing scream bridging the fluid channel of this asphalt chasm. Yet we, unfeeling, shrug off their desperate, haunted gesture as we hurtle by in our sound-dampened, climate-controlled Magic Wagon. On we rush, through the depths of the back country, dodging raccoons and fireflies and 4x4 high beams, leaving our carbonated past to face the darkness on its own.

Forever lit by glowing dashboards and halogen projection bulbs, fluorescent tubes and incandescent filaments, flashlights and moonlight, we’ve forgotten how it is to be surrounded, enveloped, cradled by darkness. Even in the false darkness that lives in musty cellars and invades during summer brownouts, we become nervous, tentative, like deer caught in the open by a black hole hurtling along an empty highway. But even that darkness is illusory, a cheap suburban knock off purchased at Wal-Mart or Zellers. To the darkness-starved suburbanite, these brushes with the semi-dark seem pretty intense, but they’re woefully incomplete. There’s light seeping through at the edges, polluting, contaminating the darkness the way light leaking through the warped seams of an old camera obliterates its captured scenes just moments after their births. This same, plague-carrying light quickly seeps into our suburban impersonations of darkness; a determined army passing under doorways, through blinds, beamed out of wristwatches and televisions and a thousand LCD-stricken devices to subjugate the darkness. And as we blink, our pupils hungrily stretching in anticipation of the spectral feast to follow, the darkness vanishes, replaced by the murky, non-threatening gloom that was really all that was there to begin with.

The twentieth century has removed darkness from our lives, sequestering it in the same land of imagined, commodified, transient things that we also reserve for God, true love and any animal that hasn’t yet been noticed, catalogued, and photographed for National Geographic. Darkness the way Canon sees it. In our world of light switches and street light glow, we have become darkness-impoverished, like Ethiopian famine victims slowly baking under a cruel, malicious sun. Our nights have been rendered so deficient by this onslaught of ten-million-candlepower plagues and Indiglo locusts that they have ceased to provide a necessary nourishment to our starving souls.

Just as we feel compelled to flee to the beach or the country to escape the bad light of fluorescent-bathed offices and smog-choked daylight, we have an equal, unanswered need to find temporary freedom from the bad darkness of halogenated streetscapes and rooms palely lit by VCR displays and coffeemaker power lights and the eternal brightness of the urban night. Yet we ignore or misunderstand this prerequisite of real life, arming ourselves with candles and flashlights and vehicle headlights when it comes time for one of our rare and reluctant brushes with real darkness. Every time we cut through nature’s darkness with one of our many implements of luminous projection, we destroy an essential part of our lives, a portion of the human experience that can never be truly replaced, simulated, synthesized or vaccinated against. Each time we do this, brushing the darkness aside like a harried stranger on a busy downtown street, we forfeit one more chance to meld with this darkness, to curl up and reside, however momentarily, within the cupped hands of the universe’s other world. These chances we waste are not about being unable to see, for true darkness has its own proprietary luminescence. As you slowly submerge into its warm folds, you feel and see the first tinglings of a new world opening up to receive you, a seething, phosphorescent sea of darkness that glows black. Immersed in the swirling vacuum of light’s absence, all the constraining safety nets and support structures in which we leave our brains to atrophy suddenly fall away, leaving you within the warm cradle of an astral womb. Floating here, you return to that prenascent time when life really was perfect, when your naked, cherubic body was unpoisoned and your mind was full of room to grow; body and mind both as yet untouched by the chemical and informational overload of the modern world. In this soft, blissful, blanketing darkness, there’s no fear of unseen dangers, just the calm contentment of a soul returning to the place in which it was first aware of its own existence. Floating, however fleetingly, within this unblemished, peaceful freedom, your mind, your very existence, is rejuvenated. A million scattered, broken impressions become defragmented, everything suddenly becomes clearer, cleaner, more stimulating and intense. You emerge, reborn, into light, the grime left by decades of stress and sickness flushed from your system.

After swimming in darkness, you see things in a higher definition - details, life’s texture, leap out to you in ways that they usually don't. You entertain possibilities that were previously unfathomable and experience lucidity that is as wonderful as it is startling. The lit world of our daily lives becomes broader, more diverse, and, best of all, more faceable. Without periodic plunges into the dark, life becomes washed out, blurred, more predictable and mechanical and tiresome. We need this darkness; without it we slowly go blind to the light, to even the brightest points in our lives, or at least see them reduced to a dim glow.

The van sputters off, bathed in the porchlight of the rickety cottage. I climb from its inert frame, my shoes scratching across the gravel surface of the driveway, the world choking in the toxic, tailing-pond stew of the outdoor light. Spinning away from the van, the cottage, civilization’s foothold in the north country, I race into the forest, dodging trees and brush barely lit by the far-off cottage that the switch-flicking members of our party have now fully illuminated. I run until my throat burns, until my skin is covered in sweat and my breath comes fast and hot. I run until the cottage light no longer invades this arboreal realm and the darkness pours through the trees to reach me. When everything has disappeared, I draw to a stop. There I stand, slowly becoming buoyant, held by the darkness in a loving, welcoming embrace. All residual stress and bad impressions are drained away, leaving me renewed, full of curiosity and tolerance and hope. And when I return, strolling unhurriedly back out of the trees, your eyes seem to sparkle in a way I’d never been able to see them sparkle before.

Dark"ness, n.

1.

The absence of light; blackness; obscurity; gloom.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep.
Gen. i. 2.

2.

A state of privacy; secrecy.

What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light.
Matt. x. 27.

3.

A state of ignorance or error, especially on moral or religious subjects; hence, wickedness; impurity.

Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.
John. iii. 19.

Pursue these sons of darkness: drive them out
From all heaven's bounds.
Milton.

4.

Want of clearness or perspicuity; obscurity; as, the darkness of a subject, or of a discussion.

5.

A state of distress or trouble.

A day of clouds and of thick darkness.
Joel. ii. 2.

Prince of darkness, the Devil; Satan. "In the power of the Prince of darkness."

Locke.

Syn. -- Darkness, Dimness, Obscurity, Gloom. Darkness arises from a total, and dimness from a partial, want of light. A thing is obscure when so overclouded or covered as not to be easily perceived. As the shade or obscurity increases, it deepens into gloom. What is dark is hidden from view; what is obscure is difficult to perceive or penetrate; the eye becomes dim with age; an impending storm fills the atmosphere with gloom. When taken figuratively, these words have a like use; as, the darkness of ignorance; dimness of discernment; obscurity of reasoning; gloom of superstition.

© Webster 1913.

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