Analysis of Poem She Walks in Beauty by George Gordon, Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron and She Walks In Beauty
She Walks In Beauty is a lyrical, rhyming poem that focuses on female beauty and explores the idea that physical appearance depends upon inner goodness and, if in harmony, can result in the romantic ideal of aesthetic perfection.
Often labelled a love poem, there is no direct mention of love and no suggestion of romance between speaker and subject. Clearly there is deep affection shown, an artist's admiration for a female figure who is perhaps more of a symbol of purity and innocence.
In the real life of George Gordon, Lord Byron, 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', it is known that he did attend a party in London on June 11th, 1814 and met a distant cousin of his, Anne Beatrix Horton, Lady Wilmot, who happened to be dressed in black mourning dress with shiny spangles.
Byron's friend, James Wedderburn Webster, confirmed later on that Lady Wilmot, young and pale and pretty, had been the inspiration for the poem. So, it seems that the handsome, witty, passionate poet, known for his drinking and sexual encounters, was simply struck by a beautiful woman on this occasion.
Byron did include She Walks In Beauty in his book Hebrew Songs of 1815, a collection of lyrical poems to be put to music. Hence the steady metrical beat, use of religious language and long vowels.
Whilst the poem is clearly fixated on a female figure and her outward appearance there is also acknowledgement of an inner spiritual core, where pure thoughts and emotions lie.
- Modern day feminists focus on the objectification of the woman and are critical of it, understandably, but perhaps they should think about the speaker sensing the goodness emanating from this woman, the moral foundation her beauty is built on.
It's not unreasonable to suggest that George Gordon, Byron, the restless, heroic celebrity of his time, saw in Anne Wilmot the antithesis of his own soul, expressing purity and peace, two qualities he recognised as absent in his.
She Walks In Beauty
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!
Analysis of She Walks In Beauty - Stanza by Stanza
She Walks In Beauty is a flowing, musical lyric poem initially written as a song by Byron. It explores the idea of a female's physical appearance being dependent on her inner psychical state.
That well known first line is simple enough yet also slightly mysterious because of that preposition in which suggests the female figure's relationship to beauty is total.
The caesura midway through the line places special emphasis on that word beauty - the reader has to pause at the comma - with the feminine ending to beauty contrasting with the masculine night, the first of many opposites.
And note that the enjambment, when the line continues into the next without punctuation, is vital to maintaining the sense. The female is compared to the night of cloudless climes and starry skies, a simile which needs both lines to work to full effect.
Lines three and four are similar in that line three is incomplete without line four, dark and bright meet - again the duality persists.
- The inversion of the iambic foot is important in line four because it reinforces the idea that these opposites exist both outwardly and inwardly. For the reader the change from iamb to trochee means that the stress comes on the first syllable - the word Meet - which alters the rhythm of the line.
The eyes have long been called the windows of the soul so the speaker is suggesting that her soul tends towards perfection (all that's best).
The last two lines, five and six, imply that the light of the night has the qualities of skin; it can be touched (tender), and that she has developed a naturally relaxed, softened approach to it. Daylight in comparison is vulgar and lacking (gaudy).
Note the religious reference - heaven - which hints at the divine.
Nuances are apparent in this first line. If she gained or lost only a little of either the dark or light her nameless grace (a second religious reference? as grace is elated to Christian ideals) would be undermined.
The first line, split midway and ended by a comma, is an important focal point for it reflects the delicacy of her being. Her natural grace moves from hair - waves in every raven tress - to face which peacefully reflects her inner thoughts, which must be pure.
Note the repeated use of certain words and phrases, which underlines meaning.
The use of alliteration and internal rhyme brings musicality.
The use of opposites in a line emphasis the contrasts.
Throughout this poem the concentration has been on the head, hair and face of the woman. This theme continues in the final stanza as the speaker introduces cheek and brow and lips - she wins people over with her glowing smile.
This focus on the positive physical attributes leads to the conclusion that morally she is also faultless - her love is innocent - she spends her time doing good - suggestive of saintly pursuits and behaviour.
She is content with her earthly existence, unsullied by life and untainted by love.
She Walks In Beauty - Themes
There are three major themes:
The romantic poets sought to idealise beauty by exploiting the emotions. The reactive feelings of the speaker come to life when the woman walks past, her obvious outer beauty reliant on the inner.
Light and dark exist together in the psyche of this female, opposite qualities delicately balanced but producing something extra.
Mind and Body
Purity of thought leads to the appearance of beauty, innocence and love combine resulting in fine features
More Analysis of She Walks In Beauty - Rhyme and Metre
She Walks In Beauty is a rhyming poem of 3 equal stanzas, 18 lines in total.
All the end rhymes are full (except for brow/glow which is a near rhyme) and the rhyme scheme is: ababab where alternate rhymes add to and complement the idea of balance and harmony.
For example: night/bright.
Metre (meter in American English)
The dominant metre throughout is iambic tetrameter, that is four feet per line each having one unstressed syllable followed by one that is stressed. This steady rhythm produces a regular beat:
She walks / in beau / ty, like / the night
Of cloud / less climes / and star / ry skies;
However there is one line where a metrical inversion occurs. The iambic foot becomes trochaic, the stressed syllable being first, the unstressed second:
Meet in / her as / pect and / her eyes;
This trochee draws attention to the fact that the two opposites (dark and bright) join forces in her appearance.
She Walks In Beauty - Antithesis
This poem has two lines which contain opposites (antithesis), for example:
And all that's best of dark and light (line 2)
One shade the more, one ray the less, (line 7)
This combining of opposites in a single line also allows a balance to be struck whilst simultaneously implying that this finely tuned balance only exists because of the innate competition between light and dark.
Beauty may be far more than skin deep but with just the slightest change, profound loss could result.
She Walks In Beauty - Literary Devices
Words beginning with consonants when close together in a line bring texture and musicality. As in:
Line 2 : Of cloudless climes and starry skies
Line 5 : Thus/that
Line 6 : day denies.
Line 8 : Had half
Line 9 : Which waves
Line 11 : serenely sweet
Line 12 : dear/dwelling-place.
Line 14 : So soft
Line 15 : The/that
Words with vowels sounding alike or similar have an effect on musicality, especially those long vowels.
Line 1 : like the night
Line 2 : climes/skies
Line 7 : nameless/grace
Line 9 : waves/raven
Line 11 : serenely sweet
Line 14 : so/eloquent
Line 15 : win/tints
Line 16 : tell/spent
The letter s is prominent in lines two and eleven, creating special sounds.
The simile in lines two and three compares the female's beauty with that of the clear, starry night.
The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997
© 2018 Andrew Spacey