I have to wear protective eye gear when I read Byron, so I don’t injure myself from all the eye-rolling, but this particular poem has been a favorite of mine since I was 11 or 12 (the only age at which I was able to FEEL ALL THE FEELS like the Romantics). As an adult, though, I find Byron’s pairing of feminine beauty and innocence troubling. The ideal praised in his poem is a female who is “sweet” and “at peace.” She is definitely his object to gaze upon, and her beauty, innocence, and serenity are constructed perhaps in contrast to Byron’s own reputation for being a wild rake, lecherous and tortured by his own desires. If that’s the case, the beauty described in this poem only exists in relation to Byron himself, only exists as a foil for his marvelous, Romantic, rebellious Self. And as a woman and a person who both loves “beauty” and wants to be “beautiful,” I find Byron’s description of beauty distinctly problematic, because Byron’s description of beauty as a thing silent and serene, as a thing that exists only to soothe his existential torment while highlighting the Sublime in himself, has absolutely nothing to do with how I see beauty or women or anything at all. Hence, the eye-rolling. So I love this poem, and hate myself for loving it.
Read it and tell me what you think. The language is gorgeous. It’s a tempting image, I’ll admit. What are your thoughts?
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 mellowed 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!