Lord George Gordon Byron, famously described as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, authored a series of poems, such as She Walks in Beauty, throughout his incredibly adventurous life. The bad boy of the Romantic literary movement, Byron was actually exiled from England largely due to rumours about his escapades, one of which dogged him until the end of his days – the fact that he had an affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and fathered a child. After that, Byron left England, and traveled to Italy and the Far East. He is best known for long narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage, and Don Juan, which scholars believe was partly based on his life.
‘She Walks in Beauty’ is one of his shorter, but best-known, poems, and has been set to music by Isaac Nathan, as part of the Hebrew Melodies set. The same rumours that dogged Byron followed the publication of this poem; it is largely thought to be an ode to Augusta Leigh.
Scholars believe that ‘She Walks in Beauty‘ was written when Byron met his cousin Mrs. John Wilmont. She wore a spangled black dress, for she was in mourning, and the story goes that Byron was so struck by her beauty that he went home and wrote this poem about her.
It is written in iambic tetrameter, three stanzas of six lines each, which is a poetic form mostly used for hymns, and thus associated both with simplicity, and with chasteness. In fact, the poem itself, although a type of love poem, does not really refer to passionate or sexual love.
The speaker’s awe at the woman’s beauty comes across as just that: the awe that one would feel for a lovely painting, or a picture of nature. It is an especially unusual choice coming from Byron, given that he was mostly known for his lascivious affairs.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
The Speaker opens the poem with perhaps the two most famous lines that Byron has ever written: She walks in beauty like the night / of cloudless climes and starry skies; / And all that’s best of dark and bright; / Meet in her aspect and her eyes. Right from the start, Byron sets the tone of the poem with a comparison that seems almost divine – beauty like the vast, starry night. Her beauty does not seem purely physical, either; instead, it is almost an aura, a shield of beauty, unaware and almost innocent in its unawareness.
It is interesting to note that the poet compares his beloved’s beauty to night, rather than daylight – in fact, day is considered gaudy, on behalf of the poet – because the tradition for Romantic poetry was to compare one to nature, but to bright nature. The darkness of the word ‘night’ seems to be a reference to the Greek ideal, beauty that is so strong that it could be almost catastrophic. Helen of Troy was one such beauty; this woman seems to be another, a divine being whose sole purpose in the poem is a shift of chiaroscuro balance.
The poet goes on to compare and contrast different aspects of beauty: her dark hair, and her white face, which the light hits, seems to recall to images of the Virgin Mary. It is easier to make associations with the divine and the religious due to the poem’s structure, that of a hymnal. There is also an emphasis – which would further strengthen the images of religion – to innocence. The lady’s beauty is largely innocent, almost virginal, and the poet cannot find a word that fully encompasses her beauty. She reconciles dark and light together, appearing both glowing, and also shrouded in darkness. One could make the association that the darkness that surrounds her – given that Byron met Mrs. Wilmont at a funeral – could be a spiritual darkness, and that her radiance was further set off by the dim spirits at the funeral. However, one could also take it as the expression of the ultimate peaceful beauty. Unlike the day, the night is devoid of people, devoid of clouds, and quiet. It is when things rest. She is not warped by her own beauty, and she exists in a world that is, to Byron, peaceful – her heart is innocent, her mind clear. Given his own nature for troubled thoughts, it is interesting to see what Byron emphasizes as beautiful, though not at all surprising given the rumours that followed him throughout his life.
There is not much happening in the poem; it is a description of a few snatched moments of peace and quiet, and wonder. The woman is left unaware of the impression that she has made on the poet, and continues on, not knowing that she has become a symbol of beauty to someone witnessing her presence.
Lord George Gordon Byron was born on 22 January 1788, in Dover – though people also believe that he might have been born in London. He was the son of Captain John ‘Mad Jack’ Byron, and his second wife, the heiress of an estate in Aberdeenshire. His first wife, the Marchioness of Camarthen, was Augusta Leigh’s mother.
AS a leading figure of the Romantic movement – an attempt by writers and artists to dispel the effects of the scientific, rational movement, and bring back magic and wonder to a humanistic world – Byron is regarded one of the greatest British poets, and one of the most influential. Most of his works are inspired, in fact, by his travels: his Grand Tour of Europe, which led him to spend seven years in Italy, partially inspired Don Juan. He also fought in the Greek War of Independence, where he was considered a national hero by the Greeks.
He died at 36, after contracting a fever that turned into sepsis.