She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
Supplement your She Walks in Beauty analysis with our detailed revision blog for A Level English Literature. She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron is featured in AQA’s Love Poetry Through the Ages (Pre-1900) Anthology.
She Walks in Beauty is a lyric poem describing the ultimate female beauty. It is thought to have been inspired by a guest at a ball attended by Byron. The woman is unnamed in the poem but is thought to have been Anne Beatrix Wilmot, wife of Byron’s first cousin Sir Robert Wilmot. Although often cited as an example of love poetry, the poet does not actually declare a romantic interest – he is admiring the woman’s perfection from afar.
About the Author
George Gordon Byron was born in 1788 and received a hereditary peerage making him a lord at the age of just ten.
Famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of his many lovers, as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, Byron led such a colourful life that his name took on the adjectival form Byronic, often used to describe brooding literary heroes and meaning alluringly dangerous. His status and notoriety made him an early-nineteenth century celebrity. He is alleged to have conducted love affairs with both men and women and even to have had a scandalous liaison with his half-sister! His only child born in wedlock was Ada Lovelace, a famed mathematician who’s often credited as one of the earliest computer programmers, though Byron became estranged from Ada and her mother when she was just a few months
old. His extravagant lifestyle incurred many debts and, despite his superficial wealth, he was constantly on the run from creditors. Eventually he became exiled from England, spending several years in Italy before dying in Greece aged 36 while helping the struggle for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.
Byron was a key figure in the Romantic movement, which stressed the power of nature and human emotion and was a reaction to Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century philosophy that everything could be rationally explained by science. Other Romantic poets include Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, to whom Byron was a close friend – a gathering at Byron’s residence on the shores of Lake Geneva inspired the poet’s wife, Mary Shelley, to write Frankenstein and Byron also had a child with another of his guests, Claire Clairmont, who was Mary Shelley’s step-sister.
The poem was originally published in an 1815 collection called Hebrew Melodies and was intended to be set to hymnal music, highlighting in part the reverence in which the poet holds his subject. It is an example of lyric poetry, which was originally meant for musical accompaniment but, in modern poetic terms, expresses personal emotions. The lyric form was revived by the Romantics.
Byron eulogises the subject of the poem in hyperbolic terms: the night that she is compared to is a picture-perfect one, cloudless and starry and she is a superlative combination of ‘all that’s best’. The ear-pleasing internal rhymes of alliteration (‘cloudless climes’), sibilance (‘starry skies’) and assonance (‘every raven tress’) complement the eye-pleasing loveliness of their subject. Both hyperbole and rhyme extend to her ‘serenely sweet’ disposition, which assumes almost saintly proportions. But she is not all light; rather this beauty depends on the perfect balance of light and dark. This is one of several antitheses which also include ‘tender’/’gaudy, ‘more’/’less’, ‘mind’/’heart’. However, the interdependence of inner and outer beauty suggests that they are less antithetical than symbiotic, working in parallel to produce the perfect harmony – nothing here is out of place.
Some accounts attribute the lady in question’s unavailability to the idea that she was in mourning and dressed in a black spangled gown; this interpretation is mirrored in the image Byron creates in the opening couplet and in the interplay between light and dark. However, as decorative as this woman appears, there is not a single mention of her attire or of artificial embellishment; the imagery is strikingly natural, as if her beauty were innate. Her effortless radiance is also captured in mellifluous rhymes.
Lyric poems follow a regular, lilting rhythm that can be easily sung. She Walks in Beauty uses a simple ABABAB rhyme scheme and is written in iambic tetrameter. Iambs create a rhythm similar to a heartbeat or to footsteps. The regularity denotes the order and symmetry that the poet associates with beauty, while the two rhyme sounds (AB) reflect the antitheses of dark/light, inner/outer.
The poem is organised into three sestets. Broadly speaking, the first establishes the lady’s beauty, the second considers its fragility and the third links outer beauty to inner goodness. Though neatly structured, reflecting its subject’s harmonious beauty, constant enjambment creates the impression of adoration overflowing, the poet unable to contain his praise to the confines of the lines.
While presenting an idealised view of beauty, Byron does not present an idealised view of romantic love: the relationship is one-sided, the speaker seemingly content to behold the beauty rather than possess her. The poet becomes almost powerless in the presence of such beauty, stripped of identity (there is no first-person present), almost as if ‘she’ eclipses all else. Beauty is the central theme but it takes multiple forms: physical, spiritual and natural.