analysis of byrons she walks in beauty

Analysis of byron’s “she walks in beauty”

            At first glance, Byron’s 1815 poem “She Walks in Beauty” seems merely a brief ode to a beautiful woman, written with alluring descriptions and a clear, powerful affection.  However, when one examines the poem more deeply, as well as the context in which it was created, one finds it more revealing about the turbulent poet himself than about his subject matter.  In addition, what seems like a straightforward love poem becomes somewhat ironic and poignant.

            The first stanza opens by introducing the reader to a clearly idealized subject.  The first two lines state that his subject not only projects beauty but also exists in a sort of rarified atmosphere, as though she was an otherworldly being.  Byron combines day and night as metaphors for her appearance – a delicate balance of opposites, implying her complexity.  The use of night is interesting, because one may initially consider sunlight a better metaphor for beauty.  However, night is not sinister darkness; instead, “cloudless climes and starry skies” seems to imply mystery and a more subtle and muted kind of beauty than “gaudy day” would imply, though daylight figures in his description as well to highlight his subject’s good heartedness.

            In addition, Byron relies on a common Romantic device here – the reliance on nature as a source of beauty and imagery.  The Romantics had an affinity for wild, uncultivated nature, but in this work, Byron prefers a tamer sort; her beauty is clearly not wild, as the line “Which heaven to gaudy day denies.”  According to Byron scholar Frederick Shilstone, his use of night as a metaphor contains “hints of immortality,” since the night sky is seemingly endless (Shilstone 100).  The poet continues, “And all that’s best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes;” the woman he describes seems to combine romantic enigma with the clarity, warmth, and life implied by sunshine.  Her beauty thus seems refined and subtle, not radiant and showy.

            The second stanza continues to describe its subject in ideal terms, as the poet implies that her delicate beauty would be unbalanced by even the minutest change.  Clearly, in the poet’s eyes, the woman he describes is perfect.  In addition, the notion of enigma reappears with the phrase “nameless grace” that characterizes her dark hair and luminous complexion, yet another implication of the ideal.  The stanza concludes by describing her face as “serenely sweet” and expresses an inner purity and good heartedness.  In the stanza’s last two lines, Byron draws the reader closer, moving from exterior descriptions to hints of her character and subtly revealing his own intimacy with the subject.  The woman is clearly no stranger he has seen fleetingly, but someone he knows and loves.

            The final stanza follows from the second by hinting at some degree of intimacy, since the poet is familiar with her calm, eloquent demeanor as well as her outer radiance.  He clearly considers her mind elevated and intelligent yet peaceful, and the “days in goodness spent” and “heart whose love is innocent” attest to virtue as well as intelligence.  The reader has followed Byron from her exterior to the interior, finding an inner beauty matching that on the outside; he probes his subject’s being and has taken the reader along on the journey.

            At first reading, the poem seems to contain no surprises.  It is brief and written with a conventional structure and meter, and it seems simply a romantic ode to a beloved woman whose inner self is as alluring and virtuous as her physical beauty.  The reader is drawn in and assumes that Byron means only to express how his subject has enchanted him and captured his imagination.  Unlike much of Byron’s work, there is nothing morbid or tragic in it; it appears an expression of unadulterated love.

            However, it contains a key surprise – the woman he describes is apparently not his wife, the former Annabella Milbanke, or even a mistress, but his widowed cousin, Barbarina Wilmot.  According to biographer Phyllis Grosskurth, she appeared at one gathering in a black mourning dress adorned with shining spangles, and Byron’s poem captures that vision, likening her dress to the night (Grosskurth 234) but attesting to a character distinguished by goodness and light.  One wonders why Byron did not write the poem about his own wife, whom one logically assumes would be his inspiration.

            However, he produced it during his unhappy marriage and presumably found little or no inspiration in his spouse, whose conservative temperament did not fit his own tumultuous behavior and unstable character.  The poet thus yearns for something more, in this case someone he cannot have because he is already married and she is a relative.  The motif of the starry night sky thus makes sense, because the poet can only see the object of his desire but never attain her.  Says scholar Jerome McGann, “Byron’s writing begins and thrives in disillusion” (McGann 13), so there is something rather ironic here; he uses no tragic tone, yet the poem reads like a lament when one considers its background.

            Indeed, Byron’s work includes a high degree of irony, according to Shilstone and McGann.  The former claims the poet used irony to balance the tensions he felt between adhering to tradition (which he briefly did by marrying a woman he found too prim and conventional) and following his heart’s mandates (Shilstone xii).  The amount of affection in the work appears so genuine that the reader thinks his intentions are pure, especially considering how he describes her “innocent” love.  Perhaps his subject’s love is innocent, because she may not have been aware of his feelings and thus was not party to Byron’s unfaithful sentiments.  McGann writes that Byron’s use of irony “[gives] us both diabolism and lucidity in equal measures and often with bracing simultaneity” (McGann 298), and in this poem he conceals his devilish intent beneath lucid language.

            Because Byron wrote the poem in the midst of a brief, ill-fated marriage, Shilstone deems it an exercise in ‘therapeutic aesthetic idealism” (Shilstone 99-100).  The union was apparently the wildly eccentric Byron’s effort to reconcile himself to social convention by marrying a proper, conventional woman, but it was a disastrously poor match and failed within three years (Grosskurth 226-228).  Here, the therapeutic aspects become clear; Byron pines for a beautiful woman he cannot have (because of their family connection) and dare sot be unfaithful to his wife, if only in a clandestine, aesthetic manner.

            In addition, the fact that it was a mourning dress appears odd.  Perhaps her being newly widowed (and thus available) makes her an even more alluring subject, but Byron does not introduce death into this poem.  It is not openly morbid, but given Byron’s bouts with depression and frequent flouting of conventional morality (Grosskurth 89-90), one sees the entire work in a different light.

            In conclusion, “She Walks in Beauty” is as much about Byron’s own unrequited yearnings as it is about a woman he idealizes.  The seemingly direct language describing her inner and outer beauty seduces the reader, especially if the reader is unaware of the poem’s background and Byron’s own unhappy domestic life.  What appears to be sweet and conventional is instead an ironic lament for someone he can only appreciate but not have, as well as a testament to Byron’s own turbulent, unconventional life and character.

REFERENCES

Grosskurth, Phyllis.  Byron: The Flawed Angel.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

McGann, Jerome.  Byron and Romanticism.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Shilstone, Frederick.  Byron and the Myth of Tradition.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

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