Agility and beauty

Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”

Lord Byron’s opening verse to “She Walks In Beauty” is one of the most memorable and quoted lines in romantic poetry. The opening lines are effortless, graceful and beautiful, a perfect 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 Lord in 1798 when he inherited the title and estate from his great-uncle. Byron’s mother had taken him to Scotland for treatment of his clubfoot, but she brought him back to England to claim the title and the estate.

Byron was educated privately in Nottingham for a short time. He then studied at 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, Hours of Idleness, in 1807 at the age of 19. At the age of 21, he was able to sit in the House of Lords.

However, Lord Byron left England for two years with his friend, John Hobhouse, to travel through Europe. They visited Spain, Malta, Greece and Constantinople. Greece particularly impressed Byron and would create a recurring theme in his life.

Back in England, Lord Byron makes his first speech in the House of Lords. Later that year he published a “poetic travelogue” titled, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a respectable collection of verses on his recent travels in Europe. The collection earned Lord Byron lasting fame and admiration. Lord Byron had become a ladies’ man and the new-found fame 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. Early in 1816 Anna and Augusta left Lord Byron and later that year he asked 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 this affair ended, Lord Byron and his friend John Hobhouse traveled through Italy, settling first in Venice, where he had a few other affairs, including an affair with Countess Teresa Guicciolo, aged nineteen years old. Here Lord Byron began his most famous and acclaimed work, the epic poem Don Juan.

Lord Byron and Teresa moved to Ravenna, then Pisa, then Livorno, near Shelley’s home, in 1821. Poet Leigh Hunt moved in with Lord Byron later that year after Shelley drowned off from the coast near Livorno in a storm. Lord Byron contributed poetry to Hunt’s periodical, The liberaluntil 1823 when he took the opportunity to go to Greece to act as an agent of the Greeks in their war against Turkey.

Lord Byron used his personal finances to help fund some of the battles of the Greeks against the Turks. He even commanded a force of three thousand men in an attack on the Turkish fortress of Lepanto. The siege failed and the forces withdrew. At this time, Lord Byron suffered from one or two fits of epilepsy. The remedy of the day, bleeding, weakens him.

Six weeks later, during a particularly cold thunderstorm, Lord Byron contracted a severe cold. The accompanying fever was treated with repeated bleeding by trusted physicians, but his condition worsened until he eventually fell 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 refused burial at Westminster Abbey due to 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 achievements.

Shortly after arriving in Greece, Lord Byron wrote these fitting lines.

“Search – less often sought than found –

A soldier’s grave – for you the best

So look around you, and choose your ground,

And rest.”

An interesting and unique life biography of Lord Byron 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 the complexity of Lord Byron.

“She Walks in Beauty”

In June 1814, several months before meeting and marrying his first wife, Anna Milbanke, Lord Byron attended a party at Lady Sitwell’s. At the party, Lord Byron was inspired by the sight of his cousin, the beautiful Mrs Wilmot, who wore a sequined black mourning dress. Lord Byron was struck by his cousin’s dark hair and blond face, the mixture of various lights and shades. It became the essence of his poem about her.

According to his friend, James W. Webster, “I took him to Lady Sitwell’s party in Seymour Road. He saw there for the first time his cousin, the beautiful Mrs. Wilmot. When we returned to her apartments in Albany , he said little, but he asked Fletcher to give him a glass of brandy, which he immediately drank to Mrs. Wilmot’s health, then retired to rest, and was, I learned by afterward, in a sad state all night. The next day he wrote these charming lines about her – She walks in Beauty like the Night…”

The poem was published in 1815. Also 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 these poems.

She walks beautifully


She walks in beauty, like the night

Cloudless climates and starry skies;

And the best of dark and bright

Meet in his appearance and eyes:

So sweet to this tender light

What sky in the screaming day denies.


One more shadow, one less ray,

Had half altered the nameless grace

Which undulates in every crow,

Or light up softly on his face;

Where serenely sweet thoughts speak

How pure, how dear their home.


And on this cheek, and on this forehead,

So gentle, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the hues that shine,

But tell of days spent in kindness,

A mind at peace with all that is below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

Discussion of the poem

The first two lines can be confusing if not read correctly. Too often readers stop at the end of the first line where there is no punctuation. This is a stride line, which means it continues without a break on the second line. That she walks in beauty like night may not make sense because night represents darkness. However, as the line continues, the night is cloudless with bright stars to create a beautiful soft 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 stride lines that tell us that her face and eyes combine the best of dark and bright. No mention is made here or elsewhere in the poem of any other physical characteristics of the lady. The vision focuses on the details of the lady’s face and eyes which reflect the softened and tender light. It has a remarkable quality of being able to contain the opposites of dark and light.

The third and fourth rows are not only strides, but the fourth row begins with an irregularity in meter called metric substitution. The fourth line begins with a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, rather than the other lines’ iambic meter, an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. The result is that the word “Meet” receives attention, emphasis. The unique feature of the lady is that opposites “meet” in her in a wonderful way.

The second verse tells us that the brilliance of the lady’s face is almost perfect. The shades and rays are in the right proportion, and because they are, the lady possesses a nameless grace. This conveys the romantic idea that one’s inner beauty is mirrored by one’s outer beauty. His thoughts are serene and gentle. She is pure and dear.

The last verse is divided between three lines of physical description and three lines that describe the moral character of the lady. Its soft, calm glow reflects a life of peace and kindness. It is a repetition, an emphasis, of the theme that a lady’s physical beauty is a reflection of her inner beauty.

Lord Byron greatly admired his cousin’s serene qualities that night and he left us an inspired poem.

The poem was written shortly before Lord Byron’s marriage to Anna Milbanke and published shortly after the marriage.

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