Literature

A Short Analysis of Lord Byron’s ‘She Walks in Beauty’

Perhaps Lord Byron’s best-loved and most widely anthologised lyric poem, ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is quoted in Dead Poets Society as an attempt to seduce a young woman, and it epitomises a particular kind of Romantic poem: that is, a poem idolising (and idealising) a woman’s beauty. Before we offer some words of analysis of Byron’s poem, here’s a reminder of it.

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.

‘She Walks in Beauty’: summary

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

In other words, the female subject of the poem is as beautiful as a cloudless, starry night.

And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

The woman’s beauty is partly a result of the contrasts between dark (we learn later on she has ‘raven’ hair, i.e. black) and bright (her eyes may be bright blue, but her skin may also be pale, conforming to the Western idea of beauty at the time).

Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Her beauty mellows or softens the contrasts between these light and dark extremes, like the bright stars against the dark night sky (a sight which ‘gaudy day’, when the sun is shining showily and brightly, denies to us).

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.

Look at the assonance in those first four lines! We have shade, ray, nameless, grace, waves, and raven. What Byron is essentially saying is that the woman’s beauty is precise: if the balance of light and dark in her features were slightly different, it would risk ruining her beauty (‘Had’ in the second line should be read as ‘Would have’). The thoughts in the woman’s head, behind that beautiful face, must be of how pure and dear she is.

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 woman’s cheek and brow are now singled out for praise: soft and calm and yet also ‘eloquent’, as if the woman’s beauty is so strong that it can almost be said to ‘speak’. Goodness and beauty often dwell together according to the poets, and this woman is no different: she is calm and innocent. It’s as if these qualities not only go hand in hand with beauty, but help to inspire it (one thinks of Roald Dahl’s famous passage about goodness and beauty here).

‘She Walks in Beauty’: analysis

In the last analysis, this is a quintessential romantic poem (a male poet praising a woman’s beauty) but also a Romantic poem, belonging to the movement in literature and art known as Romanticism. The mood is of praise for the woman’s natural beauty, and the ways in which her prettiness is in harmony with the natural world of the starry sky and the night time. Indeed, the key aspect of ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is the contrast between light and dark throughout, and the way in which the woman’s beauty finds a way of reconciling these two apparent opposites. She has dark hair, but a (presumably) lighter skin tone and soft eyes.

‘She Walks in Beauty’ is a deft but ultimately rather conventional poem in praise of a woman’s beauty. The woman is everything we might expect a conventional love poet to praise: beautiful, pure, serene. We get none of the realistic disavowals of traditional beauty that Shakespeare offers in his famous Sonnet 130, but instead a full-on endorsement of her aesthetic qualities. She might pick her toenails or only change her underwear once a month for all we know, because Byron doesn’t fill us in on the little details. Nor does he let the woman speak: she is a mute object of admiration. The closest we get to sensing her individual personality is when her thoughts are mentioned – and even then, the thoughts are only (Byron assumes) of how pure and beautiful she is.

If you enjoyed ‘She Walks in Beauty’, you might also enjoy our pick of Shelley’s best poems.

5 Comments

  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Lord Byron Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

  2. Reblogged this on Sharon E. Cathcart and commented:
    Thia is my favorite of Lord Byron’s works. Enjoy!

  3. Oh, one of my favorites. Thanks.

  4. do you have background on the poem—was a certain woman in mind?

  5. Pingback: ‘So, we’ll go no more a roving’: A Poem by Lord Byron | Interesting Literature