Thursday, 8 September 2011

Lord Byron's She Walks in Beauty


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George Gordon, Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” features three sestets, each with the rime scheme, ABABAB. The theme is feminine beauty, a prototypical focus for the Romantic. Legend has it that Lord Byron met his wife’s cousin, Mrs. Robert John Wilmot, at an evening gathering and was taken with the woman’s loveliness; then, the next morning he wrote this poem about her. This poem and many other Byron poems were set to music by Isaac Nathan.

First Sestet: “She walks in beauty, like the night”

The speaker seems overcome with the beauty that he has just experienced and tries to express the nature of that beauty; it is somewhat dark, yet it is like the sky at night that has no clouds but exhibits a plethora of diamond-twinkling stars.
The subtle glow of light gives the speaker a rather inspired feeling but at the same time a feeling a bit overcome by emotion. He over-reaches to express his feelings, hoping to communicate in fresh phrasings; thus, he focuses not on how she looks but how she walks. He imagines her walking on a clear night with all the stars subtly lighting her way, playing upon her visage.

The image of the cloudless but starry sky at night sets the perfect backdrop for the portrayal of this unique beauty that has stirred his blood. It renders the beauty “mellow[ ]” in its “tender light” in a way that the light of day could never achieve. He cleverly claims that “heaven” denies the “gaudy day” such a privilege.

Second Sestet: “One shade the more, one ray the less”

The speaker claims that the balance of the lightness and darkness of this woman’s countenance is perfect; just “one shade the more, one ray the less” and the “grace” she possesses would have been off kilter. But such is not the case.
All is in harmony to produce this impossible “grace / Which waves in every raven tress.” He cannot find one single black hair out of place. And the light that plays “o’er her face” does so with precision.

He then imagines—because he has no way of knowing the mind and heart of this woman he has just met—that her thoughts are “serenely sweet” and that the brain that thinks these thoughts is “pure” and “dear.”

Third Sestet: “And on that cheek, and o’er that brow”

In the final sestet, the speaker continues to fantasize about the woman. The light and shadows play perfectly upon her “cheek, and o’er that brow / So soft, so calm, yet eloquent.” She has “smiles that win,” and “tints that glow.”
But not only is this woman physically beautiful, one upon whom the light and shadows play perfectly in balance, she is also good; he imagines that she passes her “days in goodness.” He imagines that her mind is “at peace with all below” and that she has “[a] heart whose love is innocent!”

Commentary

If the reader allows the biographical information to guide the reading, this poem loses its force. If the reader simply allows that portrayal to stand by itself, the power of its theme comes through forcefully.
The poem dramatizes a unique experience for the speaker who is simply expressing his pure feelings by placing this woman on the proverbial Romantic pedestal. Lovely thoughts have provided the canvass on which the poet has painted his feelings.


Lord Byron describes a night (associated with darkness) with bright stars (light) and compares this woman to that night. She brings together these opposites in her beauty and creates a "tender light." Not a light like the daytime, since he describes that as gaudy (showy in a vulgar way), but a light that "heaven" doesn't even honor the daytime with.

Byron's diction in this poem is quite metaphorical. "She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies" (lines 1-2 ). His use of imagery has allowed us to visualize an atmosphere that surrounds this woman. The imagery he uses also brings together two opposing forces, darkness and light which works quite well together as one united force. We can visualize a dark sky filled bright stars, a perfect picture for an ideal evening, which can be compared to his picture of a perfect woman.
This woman, as well as the night, contains opposite features within her. "And all that¡¯ s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes" (lines 3-4 ). The joining of these opposite forces can be associated with internal aspects of this woman. Although this poem begins with a description of a woman walking, there are not any images of her body. Byron continuously refers to her hair and face. These lines work well because they employ an enjambed line as well as a metrical substitution ¡ª a momentary change in the regular meter of the poem. When poets enjamb a line and use a metrical substitution at the beginning of the next line, they are calling attention to something that is a key to a poem. Here Byron substitutes a trochaic foot (an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one) for the iambic foot at the start of the fourth line. Why? Because he is putting particular emphasis on that word "meet." He is emphasizing that the unique feature of this woman is her ability to contain opposites within her; "the best of dark and bright / meet" in her. In the same way that enjambment forces lines together, and a metrical substitution jars the reader somewhat, this woman joins together darkness and light, an unlikely pair. They "meet" in her, and perhaps nowhere else besides a starry night. It's also important to note that the joining together can be seen in her "aspect," or appearance, but also in her "eyes." A reader might think of the eyes simply as a feature of beauty, but the eyes also have been associated in literature with the soul, or the internal aspect of the person: the eyes reveal the heart.

"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;" (lines 7-10 ). Again, the combination of opposite forces, "shade" and "ray", used to create balance in this woman. If the woman were any different, she would be less perfect. His use of imagery allows the picturing of an angelic looking woman with dark hair and a light face. The woman, similar to the night creates a "tender light". This type of light cannot be presented during the day, and is so powerful that not even heaven can bestow this light on any day.

Byron also has demonstrated the use of alliteration by focusing on her mind. "Where thoughts serenely sweet express / How pure, how dear their dwelling place"(lines 11-12). This description creates an insight of a woman¡¯s mind, not her body. The repetition of the "s" sound is soothing because he is describing her thoughts. Again, Byron is more focused on this woman¡¯s internal features. For alliteration look at thoughts serenely sweet express ,4 ¡°s¡± sounds in 4 words _ the s implicit in x. Byron would be unlikely to use a heavyweight technique like alliteration without a good reason, here he's probably using it to slow up the motion of the line to let the full lusciousness of the sound develop in our inner ear.

Byron has successfully convinced his readers that this woman is perfect. Even though the descriptions of this woman may have contradictory attributes, the overall portrayal of this woman implies that these attributes have created a perfect balance within her. The use of the opposites darkness and light has helped to create this balance. The language, rhythm, and the use of human characteristics have proved that external and internal beauty can be viewed on the same scale, as well as darkness and light.

Byron says that if this darkness and lightness wouldn't be in the right proportions ("One shade the more, one ray the less"), her beauty wouldn't be completly ruined as you might expect. He says that she would only be "half impaired," and thus still half magnificent.

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