She Walks in Beauty Themes
The main themes in "She Walks in Beauty" are beauty and the interplay between light and dark.
- Beauty: The speaker notices the woman's physical beauty first. He then praises her inner beauty, citing her eloquent speech and her apparent intelligence. Her inner beauty enhances her outer beauty, making her perfect in the speaker's eyes.
- Light and dark: the speaker describes the interplay of light and dark within the woman and how the balance of these elements contributes to her beauty. Were these elements out of balance, Byron claims, she would be half as beautiful, though she would still possess her "nameless grace."
Themes and Meanings
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.
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.
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.
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...
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