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The Byronic Hero

(Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 4,917 words.)