Lord Byron’s opening couplet to “She Walks In Beauty” is among the most memorable and most quoted lines in romantic poetry. The opening lines are effortless, graceful, and beautiful, a fitting match for his poem about a woman who possesses effortless grace and beauty.
Life in England
Lord Byron was born George Gordon Noel Byron in London in 1788. He became a Lord in 1798 when he inherited the title and the estate of his great-uncle. Byron’s mother had taken him to Scotland for treatment for his club foot, but she brought him back to England to claim the title and the estate.
Byron was privately tutored in Nottingham for a short period. He then studied in Harrow, Southwell, and Newstead, and finally at Trinity College. Byron discovered a talent for writing poetry and published some early poems in 1806 and his first collection, called Hours of Idleness, in 1807 at the age of 19. When he turned age 21 he was able to take his seat in the House of Lords.
However, Lord Byron left England for two years with his friend, John Hobhouse, to travel through Europe. They toured Spain, Malta, Greece, and Constantinople. Greece especially impressed Byron and would create a recurring theme in his life.
After returning to England Lord Byron made his first speech to the House of Lords. Later that year he published a “poetic travelogue” titled, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a respectable collection of verses about his recent travels in Europe. The collection earned Lord Byron lasting fame and admiration. Lord Byron had become a ladies’ man and the newly earned celebrity brought him a series of affairs and courtships.
Lord Byron married Anna Isabella Milbanke in 1815 and his daughter, Augusta, was born later that year. However, the marriage did not last long. In early 1816 Anna and Augusta left Lord Byron and later that year he filed for legal separation and left England for Switzerland, a self-imposed exile.
Life in Europe
While in Switzerland Lord Byron stayed with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a prominent metaphysical and romantic poet, and had an illegitimate daughter, Allegra, with Claire Clairmont. After that affair ended, Lord Byron and his friend, John Hobhouse traveled through Italy, settling first in Venice, where he had a couple more affairs, including an affair with the nineteen year old Countess Teresa Guicciolo. Here Lord Byron began his most famous and most acclaimed work, the epic poem Don Juan.
Lord Byron and Teresa moved to Ravenna, then to Pisa, and then to Leghorn, near Shelley’s house, in 1821. The poet Leigh Hunt moved in with Lord Byron later that year after Shelley drowned off the coast near Leghorn in a storm. Lord Byron contributed poetry to Hunt’s periodical, The Liberal, until 1823 when he took the opportunity to travel to Greece to act as an agent for the Greeks in their war against Turkey.
Lord Byron used his personal finances to help fund some of the battles by the Greeks against the Turks. He even commanded a force of three thousand men in an attack on the Turkish-held fortress of Lepanto. The siege was unsuccessful and the forces withdrew. At this time Lord Byron suffered one or two epileptic fits. The remedy of the day, blood-letting, weakened him.
Six weeks later, during a particularly chilly rainstorm, Lord Byron contracted a severe cold. The accompanying fever was treated by repeated bleeding by trusted physicians, but his condition worsened until he eventually slipped into a coma and died on April 19, 1824.
Lord Byron was a hero in Greece and was deeply mourned there. His heart was buried in Greece and his body was sent to England where it was buried in the family vault near Newstead. He was denied burial in Westminster Abbey because of the perceived immorality of his life and numerous controversies. Finally in 1969, 145 years after his death, a memorial was placed in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey, commemorating his poetry and accomplishments.
Shortly after his arrival in Greece, Lord Byron had written these appropriate lines.
“Seek out–less often sought than found–
A soldier’s grave–for thee the best
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.”
An interesting and exceptional biography of Lord Byron’s life was written in 1830 by a contemporary and friend, John Galt, titled, The Life of Lord Byron. The 49 chapters give a good measure of Lord Byron’s complexity.
“She Walks in Beauty”
In June, 1814, several months before he met and married his first wife, Anna Milbanke, Lord Byron attended a party at Lady Sitwell’s. While at the party, Lord Byron was inspired by the sight of his cousin, the beautiful Mrs. Wilmot, who was wearing a black spangled mourning dress. Lord Byron was struck by his cousin’s dark hair and fair face, the mingling of various lights and shades. This became the essence of his poem about her.
According to his friend, James W. Webster, “I did take him to Lady Sitwell’s party in Seymour Road. He there for the first time saw his cousin, the beautiful Mrs. Wilmot. When we returned to his rooms in Albany, he said little, but desired Fletcher to give him a tumbler of brandy, which he drank at once to Mrs. Wilmot’s health, then retired to rest, and was, I heard afterwards, in a sad state all night. The next day he wrote those charming lines upon her–She walks in Beauty like the Night…”
The poem was published in 1815. Also in that year Lord Byron wrote a number of songs to be set to traditional Jewish tunes by Isaac Nathan. Lord Byron included “She Walks in Beauty” with those poems.
She Walks in Beauty
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellow’d to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Discussion of the Poem
The first couple of lines can be confusing if not read properly. Too often readers stop at the end of the first line where there is no punctuation. This is an enjambed line, meaning that it continues without pause onto the second line. That she walks in beauty like the night may not make sense as night represents darkness. However, as the line continues, the night is a cloudless one with bright stars to create a beautiful mellow glow. The first two lines bring together the opposing qualities of darkness and light that are at play throughout the three verses.
The remaining lines of the first verse employ another set of enjambed lines that tell us that her face and eyes combine all that’s best of dark and bright. No mention is made here or elsewhere in the poem of any other physical features of the lady. The focus of the vision is upon the details of the lady’s face and eyes which reflect the mellowed and tender light. She has a remarkable quality of being able to contain the opposites of dark and bright.
The third and fourth lines are not only enjambed, but the fourth line begins with an irregularity in the meter called a metrical substitution. The fourth line starts with an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one, rather than the iambic meter of the other lines, an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. The result is that the word “Meet” receives attention, an emphasis. The lady’s unique feature is that opposites “meet” in her in a wonderful way.
The second verse tells us that the glow of the lady’s face is nearly perfect. The shades and rays are in just the right proportion, and because they are, the lady possesses a nameless grace. This conveys the romantic idea that her inner beauty is mirrored by her outer beauty. Her thoughts are serene and sweet. She is pure and dear.
The last verse is split between three lines of physical description and three lines that describe the lady’s moral character. Her soft, calm glow reflects a life of peace and goodness. This is a repetition, an emphasis, of the theme that the lady’s physical beauty is a reflection of her inner beauty.
Lord Byron greatly admired his cousin’s serene qualities on that particular night and he has left us with an inspired poem.
The poem was written shortly before Lord Byron’s marriage to Anna Milbanke and published shortly after the marriage.