March 4, 2022

From Gerald R. Lucas
She Walks in Beauty[1]
By: Lord Byron (1814)

She walks in beauty, like the night[2]
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;[3]
And all that’s best of dark and bright[4]
Meet in her aspect and her eyes
Thus mellow’d to that tender light 5
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.[5]

One shade the more, one ray the less,[6]
Had half impair’d the nameless grace[7]
Which waves in every raven tress,
     Or softly lightens o’er her face; 10
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.[8]

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow, 15
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent![9]

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Notes & Comentary
  1. Byron wrote this poem about his cousin Anne Wilmot and their first meeting at a ball. In her biography of Byron, Leslie A. Marchand describes the genesis of the poem: “One evening [James Wedderburn] Webster dragged him against his will to a party at Lady Sitwell’s, where they saw Byron’s cousin, the beautiful Mrs. [Anne] Wilmot, in mourning with spangles on her dress. The next day he wrote a gemlike lyric about her” (Marchand 1987, p. 169). “She Walks in Beauty” became the first poem of Hebrew Melodies, a collection of lyrics about Old Testament themes written to accompany composer Isaac Nathan’s music, and they are dominated by “melancholy and defiance” (Ashton 1972). “She Walks” explores Hebrew culture and the interplay of opposites that’s dominant in scripture (Pesta 2004, p. 70).
         The poem is an example of reification or treating an abstraction, here beauty, as a concrete object.
  2. In mourning, Anne Wilmot wore a black, sparkly dress when Byron first saw her. Her mourning, perhaps, is an element of the situation that lends her beauty, maybe because she stands out from the crowd, a bit of unique darkness out of context. In this poem, Byron feminizes the night, endowing it with an attraction and beauty that “gaudy day denies.” The night, too, suggests that because Byron is the observer, he elevates night to a primal position of beauty, reversing readers’ expectations (Ashton 1972). “Walks” suggests movement, like the graceful progress of the stars through the night. The stars walk across the dark background and the contrast that tiggers the beauty. There, too, is an ambiguity: is she or beauty like the night?
  3. Her beauty shines like the stars in the night sky, unlike the “gaudy day” below. Here is the first contrast between light and dark in the poem.
  4. All the best of nature meet in the form of a woman Gleckner 2004, p. 86). A synecdoche of Bryon’s own “paradoxical nature” that defines the Byronic hero and his writing (Pesta 2004, p. 59). Darkness and light interplay throughout the poem, suggesting a paradoxical attraction of theme and subject, inverting, perhaps, a traditional morality (suggested by “best”) that associates beauty and goodness with light. “She” is not just Anne Wilmot, but represents all women here (Gleckner 2004, p. 87). Anne is the exemplar, the particular example that sparks Byron’s imagination, of something more grand and universal, perhaps as a personification of art or poetry (Needler 2010, p. 20, Kukathas 2002). The latter idea, opines Kukathas (2002), makes sense, as poetry “is not only bright and illuminating but also dark and mysterious.”
  5. The “light” bestowed by heaven is subtle and perhaps a bit mysterious, contrasting to the “gaudy” (overly bright light that eliminates contrast) light of day. Her place is the “high world”: an Edenic place where secular love is restored to its rightful place in the heavens, see “grace” in line 7 below (Ashton 1972).
  6. Subtlety, nuance, contrast, and tension are again emphasized in the chiaroscuro of the verse.
  7. The effect here is beyond name or rational understanding, perhaps some ineffable quality from heaven (Needler 2010, pp. 21, 23). Notice, too the movement—the walk—continues in this stanza.
  8. The movement of the poem comes to rest on the particular example of beauty: the she.
  9. The final stanza seems to reconcile the opposites, especially in the last two lines. Likewise, the speaker makes certain imaginative assumptions here about the subject, and perhaps reflects a Romantic sensibility that emphasizes feeling over reason . The conclusion that an outward, physical beauty reflects an inner, moral one reflects the poet/speaker’s imagination and sensitivity (Cf. Kelly 2002).
Works Cited
  • Ashton, Thomas L. (1972). "Byronic Lyrics for David's Harp: The Hebrew Melodies". Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. 176. Retrieved 2022-03-04. Accessed through Gale Literature Resource Center.
  • Gleckner, Robert F. (2004). "Hebrew Melodies and Other Lyrics 1814–1816". In Bloom, Harold. Lord Byron. Philadelphia: Chelsea House. pp. 85–106.
  • Kukathas, Uma (2002). "Critical Essay on 'She Walks in Beauty'". Poetry for Students. 14. Retrieved 2022-03-04. Accessed through Gale Literature Resource Center.
  • Kelly, David (2002). "Critical Essay on 'She Walks in Beauty'". Poetry for Students. 14. Retrieved 2022-03-04. Accessed through Gale Literature Resource Center.
  • Marchand, Leslie A. (1987). Byron: A Portrait. London: Century Hutchinson.
  • Needler, Howard (2010). "'She Walks in Beauty' and the Theory of the Sublime". Byron Journal. 38 (1): 19–27.
  • Pesta, Duke (2004). "'Darkness Visible': Byron and the Romantic Anti-Hero". In Bloom, Harold. Lord Byron. Philadelphia: Chelsea House. pp. 59–84.