She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron
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 impaired 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!
This lovely poem by George Gordon, Lord Byron, was written in 1814. There were many women in the Romantic poet’s life – it’s not for nothing he was called “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” – but the woman who inspired this verse was not one of his many lovers. She was Anne Wilmot, wife of his cousin Sir Robert Wilmot. When he saw her for the first time at a party in June 1814, he was entranced. She was in mourning, wearing a deep black dress with spangles on it. His friend James W. Webster recorded: “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, written in iambic tetrameter, is an astonishingly chaste one for Byron. He does not actually tell us the lady is beautiful – rather she walks in an aura of loveliness. In the first stanza, he highlights her looks through a series of contrasts – night / day, dark / bright, light / shadow. The second stanza stresses the balance that is in her looks, showing that her exterior reflects the calm and purity of her inner life. The third stanza again focuses on the detail of her face – brow, cheek, smile – asserting that such loveliness comes from the inner beauty of the woman. The poem is technically about one woman, but it extends from one individual to touch on ideal beauty and unobtainable perfection generally.
Byron wrote the poem to be set to music by Isaac Nathan, along with other poems also to be set to Nathan’s tunes. These were all published in 1815 as Hebrew Melodies a hugely successful volume which rapidly sold 10,000 copies. Click here to listen to the poem being sung to Nathan’s original tune, or see a print of it in The complete works of Lord Byron, A. and W. Galignani, 1841, p. 254.
I’ve always loved this poem which remains one of Byron’s best known shorter works. When I read it as a teenager, I longed for some man to write a poem like this about me. I’m still waiting …
Do you have a favourite Byron poem? Or are you lucky enough to have a poem written about you? Let us all know. Leave a comment.
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