Summary and Critical Analysis of She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
George Gordon Byron, commonly known as Lord Byron, was born on 22 January 1788 in a house on 24 Holes’ Street in London. He was an English poet and a leading figure of Romantic Movement (1800-1850). Byron is regarded as one of the greatest British poets, and remains widely read and influential.
Themes of writing: Liberty, Power of Nature, Love, the value of Classical Culture etc.
Type of Work: ‘She Walks in Beauty’ is a poem centering on the extraordinary beauty of a young lady. Lord Byron wrote the poem in 1814 and published it in a collection, Hebrew Melodies, in 1815.
Background: On the evening of June 11, 1814, Byron attended a party with his friend James at the London home of Lady Sarah Caroline Sitwell. Among the other guests was the beautiful Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot, the wife of Byron’s first cousin, Sir Robert Wilmot. Her exquisite good looks dazzled Byron and inspired him to write “She Walks in Beauty.”
Theme: The theme of the poem is the woman’s exceptional beauty, internal as well as external. The first stanza praises her physical beauty. The second and third stanzas praise both her physical and spiritual, or intellectual, beauty.
Summary: The progression of stanzas in “She Walks in Beauty” tell of various aspects of the beauty of a woman. The first stanza compares the woman to the beauty of the night:
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 5
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
Describing her as walking “in beauty” makes her beauty less personal and more ethereal. Since she is compared to something as cosmic as “night of cloudless climes and starry skies” — that is, a clear night lit brightly by stars — the suggestion is not just of personal beauty, but of a celestial, almost spiritual quality. It is not simply that she is dark-haired, with bright eyes (like the dark sky of night, and bright stars,) but “all that’s best of dark and bright” are joined in her aspect (looks) and her eyes. The picture, created in just these first six lines, is of a woman who is not only blessed with physical beauty, but has a certain quality of harmonious nature about her which increases her attractiveness. A phrase as general as “all that’s best of dark and bright” brings to mind the beauty of all things dark and things shining. To be possessed of the best qualities of beauty of such a large class of things is substantial indeed.
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; 10
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear, their dwelling-place.
In this stanza, Byron talks about how not only is the subject of the poem beautiful, but she has a perfect balance to her beauty. “One shade the more, one ray the less” refers back to the first stanza’s mention of dark and bright. She has the right amount of “shade” (darkness) and “rays” (brightness) balanced in the look of her face. But for the first time Byron now discusses her thoughts illuminating her beauty. “Where thoughts serenely sweet express” means that the thoughts of her mind are so sweet that they make her countenance so. The thoughts, he is saying, express that their “dwelling place” i.e. — her head, is pure and dear. This is a markedly different kind of personification, in which a person’s thoughts are being said to have an expression about the body they inhabit.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, so 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!
Byron is still talking about her looks, but in this stanza he is focusing on what her looks say about her soul. The first four lines are telling of her face, which has “smiles that win, the tints that glow” but everything is meant to show that her days are “in goodness spent”. What has started out as a poem about how a woman looks has come to be about how her looks illuminate what kind of person she is. The fact that she looks a certain way means, to Byron, that she is good and kind and has a “heart whose love is innocent”. Byron feels so strongly about this last line that he adds an exclamation point. The effect is that while the poem may have seemed to be one about superficial beauty, what the poet really admires is the subject’s goodness.