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. Note, however, that both the title and opening lines of Byron’s poem make the woman not a wholly passive object but one that is moving and travelling: ‘She walks in beauty, like the night’ – and then we have the pause, the enjambment, the run-on line which neatly reflects the woman’s own forward motion, mirroring her action as we have to travel on to the next line to see where Byron (and his subject) is taking us: ‘Of cloudless climes and starry skies’.

The faint suggestion of the homophone climbs is probably deliberate, given the reference to the skies, and the action of ‘walks’. Although she is down-to-earth and undeniably flesh-and-blood, walking on the ground (like Shakespeare’s mistress, ‘when she walks, [she] treads upon the ground’ rather than floating above it like a goddess), there is something of the air and sky about Byron’s female subject.

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). In many ways, this is a poem of contrasts through and through: dark/bright, day/night, shade/ray, more/less, and so on.

Byron balances them throughout the poem to reflect the way in which these opposing qualities appear to coexist in perfect harmony within the woman (the alternate rhyme scheme, the ababab rocking of the stanzas, also reinforces this: more on that in a moment).

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

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.

But what exactly does Byron mean by ‘beauty’ in this poem? Is he just praising the woman’s outward aesthetic appearance? Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that Byron’s fellow second-generation Romantic poet, Percy Shelley, worked up a more profound and complex idea of beauty in his work. Shelley’s ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ is an ode in praise of the idea of ‘intellectual’ beauty. Here ‘intellectual’ denotes more than just the mind, but also the spirit: the poem is about how the world of physical, visual beauty – the aesthetic world of nature around us – is but a mask that conceals (but also reflects) the deeper spiritual beauty that is invisible and non-physical:

Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form, where art thou gone?
Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,
This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?
Ask why the sunlight not for ever
Weaves rainbows o’er yon mountain-river,
Why aught should fail and fade that once is shown,
Why fear and dream and death and birth
Cast on the daylight of this earth
Such gloom, why man has such a scope
For love and hate, despondency and hope?

The word ‘aspect’ in Byron’s fourth line (‘And all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes’) may hint at more than just an external aspect and be a nod to her intellectual aspect, her personality and demeanour. Note that both dark and bright, and all that is best of both of these, meet in her. This can be read as a reference to the play of light and shadow or an allusion to a more abstract kind of lightness (and darkness), perhaps a moral ambiguity.

The metre of ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is iambic tetrameter, which means there are four feet – four iambs – in each line. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. We can mark the stressed syllables in capitals as follows for the first couple of lines:

She WALKS in BEAU-ty, LIKE the NIGHT
Of CLOUD-less CLIMES and STAR-ry SKIES

This is not a meditative poem, so the shorter tetrameter line (rather than the longer pentameter line, which has five feet) strikes the right note for a simple poem in praise of the woman’s beauty. Byron’s intent is to salute her attractiveness, rather than fashion a sophisticated argument.

The rhyme scheme is ababab, so alternating rhymes in six-line stanzas. There’s a seesaw movement to the lines: they’re almost soothing and lullaby-like in the way they tenderly pay homage to their female subject.

About Lord Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was one of the most famous English poets of second-generation Romanticism, and thanks to his colourful private life, he was certainly the most controversial. He attained considerable fame in 1812 while a young man in his twenties with his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’: Byron famously commented that he ‘awoke one morning and found I was famous’.

He had been educated at Cambridge (where he is rumoured to have kept a pet bear in his college rooms, on the grounds that keeping pet dogs was banned), and after he graduated he travelled widely, wrote poems, and ramped up eye-watering amounts of debt, thanks to his extravagant lifestyle. He courted controversy through his various affairs, the breakup of his marriage, and rumours that he was involved with his own half-sister.

He fled to the Continent in 1816, and it was at Byron’s villa that the famous ghost-story competition took place which resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Byron could command vast sums of money for new instalments to his long comic picaresque narrative poem Don Juan (whose title character, a lothario and adventurer, is a thinly disguised version of Byron himself), and this helped him out of debt, but eventually his dissolute lifestyle caught up with him. Seeking to make up for a life of scandal and profligacy, Byron travelled to Greece to fight for Greek independence, but he contracted a fever and died, aged thirty-six, in 1824.

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

5 Comments

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

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

  3. Oh, one of my favorites. Thanks.

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

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