What happens in She Walks in Beauty?
An unnamed speaker describes a woman of remarkable beauty. In the first lines, he compares her to a clear, cloudless night full of sparkling stars. He praises her beauty, in which "all that's best of dark and bright/ meet." To him, she's beautiful both in the light of day and in the tender light of night.
- The speaker admires the balance of darkness and light in the woman, proclaiming that "one shade the more, one ray the less" would have marred her beauty. Instead, this perfect balance accentuates the "nameless grace" of her "raven" colored hair and her soft features.
- The speaker notes how calm the woman is and how eloquently she expresses herself. She smiles happily, with a glow that speaks to her inherent goodness and beauty. She seems perfectly at peace and loves with a kind of innocence and simplicity that inspires the speaker to write this poem in her honor.
Readers of poetry often get confused because they stop when they reach the end of a line, even if there is no mark of punctuation there. This could be the case with this poem, which opens with an enjambed line, a line that does not end with a mark of punctuation. The word enjambment comes from the French word for leg, “jamb”; a line is enjambed when it runs over (using its “legs”) to the next line without a pause. If read by itself, the first line becomes confusing because the reader can only see a dark image, almost a blank image. If “she walks in beauty, like the night,” a reader might wonder how she can be seen. But the line continues: the night is a cloudless one and the stars are bright. So immediately the poem brings together its two opposing forces that will be at work, darkness and light.
These lines work well because they employ an enjambed line as well as a metrical substitution— a momentary change in the regular meter of the poem. When poets enjamb a line and use a metrical substitution at the beginning of the next line, they are calling attention to something that is a key to a poem. Here Byron substitutes atrochaic foot (an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one) for the iambic foot at the start of the fourth line. Why? Because he is putting particular emphasis on that word “meet.” He is emphasizing that the unique feature of this woman is her ability to contain opposites within her; “the best of dark and bright / meet” in her. In the same way that enjambment forces lines together, and a metrical substitution jars the reader somewhat, this woman joins together darkness and light, an unlikely pair. They “meet” in her, and perhaps nowhere else besides a starry night. It’s also important to note that the joining together can be seen in her “aspect,” or appearance, but also in her “eyes.” A reader might think of the eyes simply as a feature of beauty, but the eyes also have been associated in literature with the soul, or the internal aspect of the person: the eyes reveal the heart.
The emphasized word “meet” is here again echoed with the initial “m” sound in “mellowed.” This woman joins together what is normally kept separate, but there is no violent yoking going on here; instead, the opposites meld together to form a mellowed, or softened, whole. By joining together the two opposing forces, she creates a “tender light,” not the gaudiness of daytime, but a gentler light that even “heaven” does not bestow on the day. If a reader were to think of night in terms of irrationality and day in terms of reason—as is implied by the term enlightenment—that would not be apt for this poem. Neither night nor day seem pleasing to the speaker; only the meeting of those two extremes in this woman pleases him. She is a composite, neither wholly held by rationality nor by irrationality.
Once again the opposites...
(The entire section is 860 words.)