Literary Context

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Last Updated on June 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 623

Byron’s biographers agree about the occasion that inspired the poem. On June 11, 1814, Byron is said to have attended a party, perhaps a ball, at the home of a Lady Sitwell, and there to have seen for the first time his young cousin by marriage, Mrs. Robert John Wilmot, dressed in a black mourning dress adorned with spangles. Supposedly Byron wrote “She Walks in Beauty” either the same night or early the next morning.

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If the account of Mrs. Wilmot’s gown is accurate, it is easy to see why Byron thought of a starry night when he looked at the young beauty. Moreover, though death is not actually mentioned in “She Walks in Beauty,” the fact that the lady’s dark clothing was a token of mourning makes it likely that the conventional association of night and death was in Byron’s mind as he wrote the poem.

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This interpretation also helps to explain why Byron included the poem in the volume Hebrew Melodies. One of Byron’s friends had suggested that the poet and a young composer, Isaac Nathan, collaborate in producing a volume of songs in the Hebrew folk tradition, and Byron agreed to work with Nathan on the collection. For that reason, a great many of the lyrics that Byron wrote take as their subject matter characters and stories from the Old Testament. Byron not only included “She Walks in Beauty” in the volume but also made a point of asking Nathan to have it appear first in every edition of Hebrew Melodies. The most obvious explanation is that Byron usually placed what he considered his best poem in a collection first. Since “She Walks in Beauty” is one of Byron’s most anthologized poems, evidently in this case the poet’s judgment was accurate.

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There may also be a thematic justification for Byron’s using “She Walks in Beauty” to introduce Hebrew Melodies. Certainly it is the depiction of an ideal woman. One has only to look at the modifiers to see why this woman would be so easy to live with: “tender,” “softly,” “serenely,” “sweet,” “pure,” “soft,” and “calm.” It is, however, significant that the final word of the poem is “innocent.” Byron’s ideal may be viewed as a portrait of Eve before the Fall, appropriately placed first here, as it is in the Old Testament.

“She Walks in Beauty” is one of the few optimistic lyrics in Hebrew Melodies. The later poems show human beings as fallen creatures in a fallen world. What scant hope there is may come through art. For example, in the second poem in the collection, “The Harp the Monarch Minstrel Swept,” King David’s songs elevate humanity above its fallen condition. However, generally life is shown as essentially tragic and probably meaningless. In “Jephtha’s Daughter,” an innocent young woman is forced into martyrdom. In “All Is Vanity, Saith the Preacher,” it is asserted that even poetry is helpless against despair.

Any discussion of the meaning of “She Walks in Beauty” should also point out how inconsistent Byron’s admiration of the woman is with his own Romantic tendencies. This ideal woman has the neoclassical virtues of reason, moderation, and self-control. By contrast, Romantics value feeling above reason. Byron usually shows rebellion as proof of intellectual independence, excess as a road to truth, and passion as an indication that one is truly alive. Considering the rest of his works, as well as his life, it is ironic that Byron was so drawn to the virtuous lady he describes in “She Walks in Beauty.” On the other hand, it is only human to value that which one has lost and which, unfortunately, will probably not long survive in this fallen world.

Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

Lord Byron is considered one of the most important and interesting poets of the romantic movement in England, and “She Walks in Beauty” is frequently considered one of his most powerful works. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, romanticism swept across the world, affecting the sensibilities of artists and philosophers in a number of countries. Like any social movement, it was not the result of any kind of structured effort on the parts of its adherents so much as it reflected a response to the times they lived in and the problems that they found with the work of artists that came before them.

The last half of the 1700s represented a time of great social unrest in Western society. In the United States, this era is best remembered for the American Revolution, which was fought from 1776 to 1783, leading to the adoption of the Constitution in 1789. Even more compelling to the people of Europe was the French Revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799. While the American Revolution freed a new colonial country from the country that ruled it, establishing a democratic government of the people, by the people, and for the people, the revolution in France overturned the government of a political structure that had existed for hundreds of years. Both revolutions reflected the same basic principles, supporting the rights of individuals to control their own fates and rejecting the previous order that gave the aristocratic ruling class the power to establish laws and levy taxes without holding its members responsible. Although the ruling monarchies were shocked by the unruliness of the American rebels and their methods of defying the existing social order, such as the Boston Tea Party, these actions paled when compared with the widespread bloody chaos that took place throughout France during the revolution there. The French government ordered massive executions to frighten the revolutionaries, and when they gained power, the revolutionaries put hundreds of members of the nobility to death at the guillotine.

These political upheavals encouraged the sense of freedom that characterized the romantic movement. Earlier generations had focused attention on using order, reason, and scientific exploration to address the world’s problems. During the Age of Enlightenment, which is measured from roughly the year 1700 to the start of the French Revolution in 1789, philosophers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot published works that promoted humanity’s ability for self-improvement and were influential throughout Europe and North America. This faith in the social and physical sciences was reflected in literature in greater attention to studying the styles and themes of ancient writers, so that in the early to mid-1700s neoclassicism flourished. The Enlightenment’s support of reason can be said to have created a revolutionary spirit, as people around the world began questioning the qualifications of aristocrats, who had power only because their parents had power. The spirit of revolution led to the romantic movement, which shifted emphasis from rationality toward spirituality.

The romantic movement in literature developed gradually in different places, but most historians agree that it came into focus with the introduction that William Wordsworth wrote for the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote. In this introduction, Wordsworth described poetry, using a much-quoted phrase, as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” This emphasis on spontaneity and feeling gave romanticism its defining characteristics: a focus on beauty, insistence on the importance of the writer’s sensibilities, and an emphasis on the non-rational that eventually developed into an interest in the occult. The early English romantic poets included Wordsworth, Coleridge, and William Blake.

Lord Byron belongs to the second phase of romanticism in England, which began early in the nineteenth century. This new wave included an appreciation of history, but not the ancient history of Western civilization that was popular with the neoclassicists. As it went along, romanticism picked up an interest in folk arts and national history, giving a social context to the “powerful feelings” that Wordsworth emphasized without shackling romanticism to social tradition. The poets of this period— most notably Byron, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley—are the ones that modern students most often associate with the romantic movement. Their works are sensual and patriotic, mysterious and mournful. The stereotype of the poet as a young man, struggling feverishly with the unnamed inspiration that he is compelled to follow, consumed by love and doomed to a tragic end, is based almost entirely on the lives of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, who lived and loved heartily and all died young.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183

1815: The world’s political powers are in a state of change. The French army of Napoleon Bonaparte is defeated by the British at Waterloo, ending his dominance of Europe, while the British army is defeated in the Battle of New Orleans, establishing America’s control of the continent.

Today: The major military powers seldom come into direct conflict with each other, although they do take sides in the conflicts of smaller nations.

1815: A woman in mourning for a dead relative is expected to wear black for at least a year and to stay out of public social situations for at least that long.

Today: Social conventions for how a person should express her or his grief have less stringent rules.

1815: A London banker is able to get news of Napoleon’s defeat days before the newspapers have the information because he has associates send the report by carrier pigeon.

Today: Cell phones and e-mail transmit information around the globe instantly.

1815: Sources of artificial light are gas lanterns (in the wealthier homes) and candles. Today: Most homes and streets are lit with electrical light.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements

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Connections and Further Reading