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...
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