The Byronic Hero

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1609

Modern appreciation of the poetry of Lord Byron is focused mainly on his works about male characters who in some ways represent the poet, or at least the person the poet liked to think he was. Like the Hemingway hero, who embodied manly ideals that biographers can show novelist Ernest Hemingway was trying to incorporate into his way of life, the Byronic hero had elements of genius, tragedy, and sex appeal that set the standard for the poet, as well as for generations of would-be misunderstood poets for years to come. There were, in fact, several Byronic heroes, from the intensely silent man of action to the sensitive artiste to the brash, unwavering lover, who provides the sensibilities for a poem like “She Walks in Beauty,” even if he does not appear in it directly. P. L. Thorslev, in his book The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes (quoted in Jump, p. 76) gives a list of basic heroic types that were popular in Byron’s time:

the Child of Nature; the Gothic Villain (unregenerated, as in the novel, or remorseful, as in the drama or in [Sir Walter] Scott’s romances); the accursed Wanderer; the Gloomy Egoist, meditating on ruins, death, or the vanity of life; and the Man of Feeling, suffering from a lost love, or philanthropically concerned with the suffering caused by war or oppression.

In “She Walks in Beauty,” there is no particular narrator referred to, no mention of an “I” or “me” that would tell readers they are supposed to think about the person who is telling them about this beautiful woman. Still, it is rare that there is ever a poem where the persona of the speaker is not a central concern. Prose is for conveying information; when one writes poetry, the words are arranged on the page in a highly stylized fashion, and readers are bound, eventually, to question the personality that this arrangement reveals. Often, the personality of the speaker is that of the poet, but it would be a mistake to assume that this is always the case. As the list above indicates, Lord Byron projected a number of various personalities through his poetry. Readers cannot just assume that “She Walks in Beauty” is a revelation of Byron himself; instead, they have to ask just what kind of character is behind the words of this particular poem, implied but not examined, almost hidden within the attempt to throw attention onto the beautiful woman of the title.

The little that is known about how this poem came into being seems to give it some sort of basis in real life, although this simple conclusion is not as simple as it seems at first. The story of its genesis is told over and over again, with no more details than Leslie A. Marchand gave in his 1970 biography of Byron. In his summary of the festive London social scene at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, when the city was overrun with returning army officers and alive with the thrill of victory, Marchand writes:

One evening [James Wedderburn] Webster dragged him against his will to a party at Lady Sitwell’s, where they saw Byron’s cousin, the beautiful Mrs. Wilmot, in mourning with spangles on her dress. The next day he wrote a gemlike lyric about her.

Many readers assume from this snippet of Byron’s life a background context for “She Walks in Beauty.” They find it to be about the chaste love of a man for his relative, or they add the element of Mrs. Wilmot’s grief to her beauty and speculate on whether the magic surrounding her is in spite of or because of it. It provides a sense of the poem’s speaker as a Hopeless Romantic, using the word in the modern sense, as it has come down to current times with associations that it picked up from the age of romanticism. This poem presents itself as a work of pure love and intellectual appreciation for the object of desire that Byron had no interest in pursuing as a lover.

While it is fine to know the circumstances under which a work of art first appeared, it can sometimes be a distraction. Examining this poem without considering the poet or the little that is known about his inspiration for it reveals a slightly different personality for the speaker: one still mostly hidden behind the grandeur of the woman being discussed, but one who exists nonetheless. For the sake of discussion, and for no other reason, this speaker can be referred to as “he,” although there is really no strong evidence that links it to either gender once the author’s identity has been removed from the equation. He appears to be sensitive, intelligent, smitten, and respectful, swept off of his feet by the sheer elegance of the lady being described. These aspects projected in the poem are all consistent with various versions of the Byronic hero. It is obvious that this speaker is meant to be admired and respected for the admiration and respect that he extends toward the beautiful woman, and it is this that qualifies him for the label of “hero.”

A significant part of this hero’s profile is the knowledge that he claims to have about the woman’s personality. He knows, according to the poem, that she has “thoughts serenely sweet” and “a heart whose love is innocent.” How would he know these things? It is a small point, but one that colors the whole message of the poem, and therefore one that gives many students their entire understanding of the spirit of romanticism.

Looking at the matter biographically, one could say that Byron was familiar with Mrs. Wilmot, that he knew her personality and chose to characterize it as such. This explanation misses the point; however, no matter how well he knew the woman (and indications are that they were not very close at all), it is impossible to know any other person’s soul with the certainty that the speaker claims in this poem. The other option that is drawn from reality would be that the poem’s speaker might be understood as seeing the purity of the woman’s heart through the purity of her face. The poem certainly leans readers toward this interpretation at the end, when it lists several of the aspects of her face and then explains that they “tell of” the goodness of her spirit. This sort of interpretation of physical clues, of saying that a person’s psyche must be a particular way to have caused her face to come out the way it has, is well within the responsibility of poetry. But “She Walks in Beauty” is inconsistent in its method of interpreting personality. Lines 10–12 have “thoughts” expressing purity and dearness on her face, which seems to explain how the face reflects personality but actually confuses the issue by claiming that this woman has thoughts on her face. So common is the language that people use when telling about how they can “read” emotions that Byron almost gets away with putting a non-physical idea in a physical place.

There is a jump in logic required to understand the speaker of the poem as he is presented. It is this logical jump that takes him beyond the logical, measurable, knowable world and gives him almost supernatural ability to know the woman’s soul that makes this poem’s speaker heroic. As an actual human being, Byron may have been incredibly sensitive to the physical characteristics of people he encountered, and he may have shown great intuition in guessing their personalities from the traits that he observed. Still, he could not have seen this deeply into the spiritual realm, to know the im- measurable aspects that they might not have even known about themselves. Though, as a hero, he could. There are many traits associated with the word “hero,” and the variations on the “Byronic hero” are almost too numerous to be useful anymore, but one thing stays consistent: the word “hero” is almost always used for a person who achieves things that ordinary people cannot. The speaker of this poem knows things about the woman that he would not know if he existed in the real world. The fact that he uses this power selflessly, to shower praise on another, is what makes him “heroic” in the conventional sense of the word.

When a poet lives an interesting life, as Lord Byron did, there is a great temptation to read his work in terms of his life. This is especially true when there is at least a little bit known about the inspiration for the poem, as is the case with “She Walks in Beauty.” Often, the knowledge about Byron’s life is mixed with the concept of the hero that he often projected in his work, and critics will understand a piece of literature through that double filter. Because there is no semblance of the author or of a heroic character in this poem, readers too often tend to interpret it as if it came from outside of the normal range of Byron’s work, instead of looking for the ways that it fits in. In fact, “She Walks in Beauty” is as interesting for the things that are not explicitly mentioned, that are only implied, as it is for the technical brilliance and passion it conveys.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on “She Walks in Beauty,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and composition at Oakton Community College and the College of Lake County.

Aesthetically Perfect Subject

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1548

In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein, a one-time associate of the enigmatic title character, is interviewed by Thompson, the reporter whose quest for the meaning of Kane’s final word (“Rosebud”) propels the film. Bernstein suggests to Thompson that perhaps “Rosebud” refers to “some girl” from Kane’s “early days,” only to be told by Thompson that “‘it’s hardly likely . . . that Mr. Kane could have met some girl casually and then, fifty years later, on his deathbed,’” recall her during his last moments on earth. Bernstein, however, offers an example from his own life to suggest the power of a moment spent in the presence of a certain type of beauty:

A fellow will remember things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on a ferry and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in—and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on—and she was carrying a white parasol— and I only saw her for a second and she didn’t see me at all—but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.

What specifically fascinated Bernstein about this girl is never revealed, but if the details he offers are to be trusted, her complete innocence (suggested by her white dress and parasol) had something to do with the force of her vision on Bernstein’s mind—surely he does not recall her month after month as “the one that got away,” or as the fuel for licentious imaginings. The very fact that the girl was completely oblivious to the eyes of men is part of what made her so attractive; had she flirted with Bernstein or otherwise shown her approval of his adoration, the spell would have broken.

A similar phenomenon is dramatized in Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” where the title figure (Byron’s cousin by marriage, Mrs. Robert John Wilmot) has no idea she is being watched so attentively or producing a reaction of such intensity. Byron is fascinated by the vision of Wilmot for reasons similar to why Bernstein was fascinated by the girl on the ferry: she is beautiful and her beauty is enriched by her innocence.

The poem presents Wilmot as a woman made beautiful by a perfect combination of opposites, the foremost being that she appears so striking while in mourning, as Wilmot was when Byron had his now famous glimpse of her. Wilmot’s grace in mourning only heightens her beauty and ignites Byron’s eye, rather than turning it away with the solemnity and sobriety one would expect from a woman in mourning dress. (Funerals, of course, are not thought of as breeding grounds for beauty, nor are mourning clothes worn to accentuate one’s physical charms.) Her striking appearance is also the result of perfectly blended opposites: in this case, shades of light and dark. Her dress and “raven” hair are black, yet her skin and eyes are fair, so that “All that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes.” These contrary attributes are ones not even found in nature (a longtime poetic standard for beauty), for here they are “mellowed to that tender light / Which heaven to gaudy day denies.” The “day” is “gaudy” because it lacks the perfect balance of light and dark that is found in Wilmot—instead, the heavens simply dump an unmeasured heap of light onto the sky and do the opposite with darkness a few hours later. The person with the loudest voice is not, of course, the greatest singer, just as the thing with the greatest amount of light is not the most beautiful. In fact, the combination of light and dark is so perfect in Wilmot that “One shade the more, one ray the less” would destroy the totality of her beauty.

Aesthetically, therefore, she is perfect—but the world is full of beautiful girls whose beauty has been painted by artists even more carefully than by Byron. What makes Wilmot so alluring is the fact that her beauty is the direct result of her purity. Her face is one shaped by a number of “thoughts serenely sweet” that reflect the “pure” and “dear” mind from which they spring; similarly, her “smiles that win” and “tints that glow” are not ones that reveal her desire to capture the hearts of leering men, but instead “tell of days in goodness spent.” Just as the physical deformity of Shakespeare’s Richard III is meant to suggest his twisted, vile heart, Wilmot’s physical beauty is indicative of her moral perfection. Although Wilmot’s angelic appearance and soul elevate her to the point where people like Byron are “below” her, she does not find her admirers bothersome: instead, she is “at peace” with her worshippers because of her “heart whose love is innocent”— jealousy, envy, and cunning are not a part of her heart and therefore do not mar her appearance.

Had “She Walks in Beauty” been written by a different poet, the analysis here would most likely be finished. However, the identity of the author complicates matters because of what the world has learned about his mind and passions. Byron was widely described as mad, bad and dangerous to know—an apt description, for Byron stood in his own time (and certainly stands today) as the embodiment of rebellion and dismissal of conventional moral codes—so much so that the term “Byronic hero” has been coined to describe a moody, dark figure without roots or respect for those values held dear by his contemporaries. Byron’s promiscuity has been well documented and endlessly discussed by himself and others: his sleeping with his half sister, bisexuality, and (by his own count) over two hundred affairs may shock a reader, but also make “She Walks in Beauty” more moving and complex.

Consider the speaker, then, not only as one who is particularly sensitive to beauty but as Byron, the licentious literary legend. Why would a man so consumed by his own insatiable sexual appetites pause to ponder such a woman? The answer lies in the attraction of the impure for the pure. Now the combinations of light and dark take on added meaning: she possesses a “heart whose love is innocent” but he sees her walking “like the night”— that is, like a woman of the night. Her black mourning dress now takes on a significance that she cannot understand (because of her “thoughts serenely sweet”) but that he, as one who has lost the capacity or inclination for such “sweet” thoughts, finds alluring. The very fact that the innocent Wilmot could not begin to fathom a mind that would connect the darkness of mourning clothes with the dark thoughts of sexuality makes her all the more rare and alluring to Byron. Unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s heroine Lolita, who is quite aware of her own desirability yet teases men with a pretense of innocence, Wilmot is (at least in Byron’s eyes) genuinely innocent and this innocence is what sparks Byron’s attraction, fuels his fascination, and elicits his worship.

To appreciate such innocence, the speaker must therefore acknowledge that he has lost this same quality in himself—which Byron did in a number of letters and poems. Abandoning oneself to hedonistic impulses may be liberating or exhilarating, but “She Walks in Beauty” suggests the price of such liberation through its tone of longing and implicit regret for the speaker’s own immoral ways. He has been removed forever from the Wilmots of the world. She walks in beauty while he slouches in corruption.

The poem’s iambic tetrameter is a meter commonly found in hymns and associated with “sincerity” and “simplicity” (consider Marlow’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” for example), as opposed to iambic pentameter, which is usually used to depict more complex emotions (consider the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton). Byron’s choice of meter reflects his yearning for the simplicity embodied in Wilmot but absent in himself. Here, the wistful longing of the bad for the good carries with it the sweetness of lyric verse, a sweetness that both praises the observed while condemning the observer.

In his book Byron and the Spoiler’s Art, Paul West remarks that “Byron’s only sincerity seems to be toward emotions he has lost and tries to recapture.” Read in this light, “She Walks in Beauty” is both a catalog of aesthetic wonders as well as a psychological study of a person who weeps for the innocence he knows he has lost, and who therefore seeks relief from the pain of such knowledge in his public affirmation of the desirability of purity. His meditation on “A heart whose love is innocent” serves as a means by which a reader can examine his or her own heart and ponder the degree to which it is as innocent as Wilmot’s, fouled like Byron’s, or somewhere in between.

Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on “She Walks in Beauty,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Moran is a secondary school teacher of English and American literature.

Complexities in This Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1760

“She Walks in Beauty” is counted among the best known of Byron’s lyrics, and is the most famous of the verses published in his 1815 volume, Hebrew Melodies. While critics have admired the poem for its gracefulness, lyricism, and masterful use of internal rhyme—William Dick, for example, writing in Byron and His Poetry, calls it a work of “peculiar sweetness and beauty”; in his essay “George Gordon, Lord Byron,” Northrop Frye remarks on the work’s “caressing rhythm”; and Thomas L. Ashton in Byron’s Hebrew Melodies points out that it is the “most enjoyed” of all the verses in that early volume—commentators have generally regarded it as a pleasing “mood” piece of no particular intellectual interest. Frye, writing about Byron’s lyrical poetry in general, claims that it “contains nothing that ‘modern’ critics look for: no texture, no ambiguities, no intellectualized ironies, no intensity, no vividness of phrasing, the words and images being vague to the point of abstraction.” The poetic emotion in Byron’s lyrics, according to Frye, is made out of “worn,” “ordinary” language, and he singles out “She Walks in Beauty” for its “flat conventional diction” whose strength lies in its musicality and not its language or ideas. Herbert Read, in Byron, offers a similar criticism of the poem, claiming that Byron uses words that are apt to express his thoughts but which lack “originality of . . . application . . . or collocation” and hence do not produce “an essentially somatic thrill of appreciation.” Read points out that the poem’s references to “cloudless climes” and “starry skies” are obvious clichés, and concludes from this that Byron “was not in the fundamental sense poetic,” and certainly not on a par with other “major” English poets.

While it is easy on the one hand to see why these critics regard the poem as they do—it is, after all, a work much of whose charm lies in its simplicity of diction, gentle musical rhythms, and singularity of concern as its offers lavish praise of a beautiful woman—on the other hand, they do not do justice to the subtle complexity of the piece. They overlook the fact that, with his straightforward hymn of adulation to a beautiful woman, Byron might be saying much more—for example, about the nature of art, reality, and immortality— than at first would be suspected. The critics ignore, too, that the poem manifests the impulse, common among romantic writers, to avoid didacticism, or overt instructional intent, and to communicate human concerns not in the language of reason but of feeling. It is not that the poem does not convey subtle and complex ideas, but rather this is done not in intellectual terms but by calling upon the emotional responses of the reader. Thus it seems unfair and incorrect to regard Byron as “unpoetic” because of the simplicity of expression used in these verses. Although the poem is certainly set forth in the words of plain speech, it can be argued that what Byron does in “She Walks in Beauty” is present in simple, immediate form a wealth of ideas that could not be done justice to in more ambiguous, intellectualized, intense, or vivid language.

The poem, as is well known, was written by Byron after seeing for the first time his cousin, the beautiful Mrs. John Wilmot, at a party. She appeared in a black mourning gown decorated with spangles. The verses, written by Byron the next day, describe and praise a beautiful woman, shrouded in the beauty of the starry night, in idealized, other-worldly terms. It is not just her physical beauty that is exalted, but her “nameless grace,” or inner beauty, that is glorified. In the poem, she is associated immediately with a more exotic locale than England, a place of “cloudless climes.” The most intense image in the poem is that of light, but it is a different sort of light than is normally associated with heavenly beauty; it is muted or “tender,” not the light of “gaudy day,” but a light that is fused with darkness. Byron overturns the reader’s expectations by associating beauty with darkness rather than light and also by showing how light and darkness merge to create a perfect harmony. The woman’s dark hair “lightens o’er her face,” and the poet suggests that if she contained within her more darkness or more light, she would be “half impaired,” or less than perfect as she is now. She also exudes a nameless grace or indescribable inner loveliness that matches her exterior perfection.

At first reading, it might seem that the poem is merely a beautiful tribute to a lovely woman, a poem that is perhaps exceptional because of the interesting use of the images of darkness and light, the harmony of inner and outer beauty, and the rhythmic musicality of the lines, but which does not offer much else of intellectual interest. But, upon closer examination and especially when considered in the context of the volume of verses in which it first appeared, another interpretation suggests itself that shows the poem to be far richer and subtler than most critics have allowed.

Byron certainly thought of the work as significant in some way, as he requested of the songwriter Isaac Nathan, who composed the musical accompaniment for the verses in the Hebrew Melodies, that it be the opening poem in any edition of the volume. The Hebrew Melodies were not a project that Byron conceived of himself, but the poet was asked by his friend Douglas Kinnaird to collaborate on a volume of verses set to “ancient” Jewish melodies that Nathan would arrange for contemporary performance. “She Walks in Beauty” was actually written in the summer of 1814, some months before Byron was commissioned to write the pieces for Nathan’s volume, and its subject matter is certainly not biblical in any way. But, for some reason, Byron considered the poem to be a fitting overture to the volume of poems. One possible reason for this, suggested by Frederick W. Shilstone in Byron and the Myth of Tradition, is that Byron considered the Hebrew Melodies to be more than simply a work about the history of the Jews, but also about the mystical power of music and, ultimately, of art. The poems in that volume, according to Shilstone, are very different, some treating biblical and other purely secular themes, but what they have in common is a concern with earthly life, immortality, and art—especially how poetry takes the materials of the real and physical world and renders them immortal.

If Byron considered “She Walks in Beauty” to be so central to the Hebrew Melodies that he insisted it be the lead poem in every edition of the work, it seems reasonable to suppose that he thought it embodied many of that volume’s most important ideas. And, if Shilstone is correct and a concern with the power of art is at the heart of the work, this suggests an interpretation that in describing the idealized “she” of the poem, Byron was not merely honoring a beautiful woman but also offering a hymn of praise to a personification of art, and of poetry in particular. That is, Byron, in praising and describing the lovely Mrs. Wilmot, is also praising and describing what he thinks of as the power of art and poetry. This is certainly supported by the text itself if art (or poetry) is thought of as being something that is not only bright and illuminating but also dark and mysterious. Poetry is not only beautiful for what it shows but for what it hides, as it casts light on certain ideas but also leaves some things up to the imagination of the reader. Poetry too can be thought of as having the internal and external beauty that is mentioned in the poem as well as a perfect balance of what is revealed (light) and what is concealed (darkness) to convey meaning. It has a “nameless grace” that would be impaired if the combination of illumination and concealment of ideas were different than it is. All art has an inner quality that cannot be described and that would be impaired if the artist were to have made any part of it differently. If art and poetry are seen in this way, they clearly fit in with and may be seen as being personified by the beautiful woman of Byron’s poem.

In his description of Mrs. Wilmot, Byron takes a character from real life and, with his words, ele- vates her until she becomes immortal. He describes her in terms that are not of this world, declaring that “all that’s best” of dark and bright meet in her person, that she displays a perfect balance of darkness and light, that her mind is pure and at peace, and that her heart is innocent. This, then, is the power that poetry has, as it takes something from the earthly world and renders it immortal. A mortal woman is described in the words of the poet and is elevated to a divine status. In the same breath, Byron uses the poem in which the woman is immortalized by poetry to offer his own hymn to poetry.

According to this reading of “She Walks in Beauty,” most critics have been too dismissive of the lyric as being one-dimensional when it can be seen to have considerable depth of meaning. Some might complain that the reading presented here is not plausible, and that to see the poem as being a praise of poetry itself is not suggested by the simple language and thoughts presented in it. However, if it is remembered that one of the goals of the romantic poets was to convey ideas not only through rational means but by conveying feelings and moods, offering insights into the world of nature and art through the most simple aspects of human experience, it seems entirely possible that with his straightforward, plainly written poem, Byron was calling upon the emotional response and imagination of the reader to see beyond the description of other-worldly beauty and recognize the force that renders such things immortal. Indeed it is by using the simplest of words and ideas, unhindered by intellectualized concerns, that the poet can convey such pure emotion and invite the reader to move beyond the overt description of the poem and recognize its other possibilities.

Source: Uma Kukathas, Critical Essay on “She Walks in Beauty,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kukathas is a freelance writer and editor.

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Critical Overview