She Walks in Beauty by Byron: Analysis, Theme & Interpretation
This lesson takes a close, interpretive look at 'She Walks in Beauty,' one of the better-known poems by Romantic poet Lord Byron. Specifically, the lesson will examine how this poem embraces Romantic ideals.
George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron (1788-1824), was an English poet of the Romantic period. As a Romantic, he embraced the power of the heart over the power of the mind. As a result, much of his work shows an admiration for the natural world, and expresses a desire to move closer to that world, which Romantics associated with human purity, or innocence.
Our analysis of 'She Walks in Beauty,' one of Byron's more famous works, will focus on the ways the poem embraces Byron's Romantic ideals.
Analysis and Interpretation
She Walks in Beauty
by Lord Byron
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!
In the first stanza of the poem, we're introduced to the woman the speaker is writing about, and are given a description of the ways she's beautiful. The poem itself is an extended description of that beauty (a common Romantic practice), but it is in this first stanza that we're given the terms of her beauty. Just what is it about this woman that has moved the speaker to write about her?
First, let's look at the imagery the speaker associates her with. In the first two lines, we learn that she '…walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies…' That she's associated with a night sky is significant. For Romantics, the measure of a thing's beauty is its nearness to nature. She certainly is near it - she even, as the speaker tells us, has its same way of walking.
As the stanza continues, we see it goes further than that, though. Not only is the woman near nature, but 'all that's best of [night's] dark and bright / meet in her aspect and her eyes…' In other words, nature is part of her. She is the place where nature's beautiful features meet and are fused. Furthermore, the stanza closes with the declaration that the mixture of beauty in her eyes in fact attains a level of beauty higher than that which nature bestows on 'gaudy day.' For a Romantic, this is high praise indeed. The speaker has told us that this woman's beauty exceeds that of nature.
In the second stanza, the speaker extends the beauty 'argument' he's set up in the first. Not only are the woman's features a beautiful mixture of natural elements, they in fact have attained some perfect, delicate balance that the slightest adjustment would upset. He writes, 'One shade the more [or] one ray the less' and her grace would be 'impaired.'
But, as the stanza implies, her grace isn't impaired. Rather her natural elements are arranged in just such a proportion that 'thoughts serenely sweet' can be expressed on them. While this might seem like just more adoration, it in fact is setting up the argument's important final phase, which is that not only is this woman beautiful - her beauty is so perfect that it in fact moves inward. It works into her skin and makes her inner person pure and perfect as well.
The final stanza, and in particular the last three lines of the final stanza, is where the poet drives home this final claim, that his beloved's outward beauty has enacted within her a kind of inward correctness, or purity. He declares (my italics), 'the smiles that win, the tints that glow / but tell of days in goodness spent…a mind at peace…a heart whose love is innocent.' In other words, her beauty both enacts her purity and is evidence that she was perfect all along, that somehow her beauty was bestowed on her as a kind of affirmation of good character.
Theme and Summary
Like many of Byron's poems, and many poems by other Romantics, 'She Walks in Beauty' is a declaration that the nearer one comes to nature, the more beautiful he (or in this case she) becomes. The poem also argues that it goes beyond beauty. Nature is beautiful, and being nature-like does make us beautiful, but nature also is a state of goodness and correctness. Approaching that state, we ourselves become good and correct (in addition to the cosmetic benefits).
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