She Walks in Beauty
George Gordon, Lord Byron, was an English poet who wrote during the early nineteenth century. Today, he's mostly associated with the movement we refer to as "Romanticism." The Romantic period wasn't just about sappy love poems (although you'll find a few) – it was a political and social movement, as well. The Romantics were reacting against an eighteenth-century obsession with order, rationality, and scientific precision. (If you want an example, just check out Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography – the man made a graph of his personal virtues!) Romantic-era writers and thinkers believed that these Enlightenment-era philosophers and writers (like Franklin) totally missed the boat when it came to understanding human nature. How can you summarize your own personality in a graph? So Romanticism is partly a reaction against the rationalism of the eighteenth century. That's why it's called "Romanticism" – not because the literature is all about love (it's not), but because "Romanticism" contrasts so strongly with rationalism.
When we talk about Romantic-era poets, we usually focus on six principal figures. William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth were the oldest, and are generally credited with kicking off this literary movement. The younger generation of poets includes John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. Byron was something of a rock star in his own day – he was wildly popular, but his lavish, decadent lifestyle and loose morals made Lady Caroline Lamb famously describe him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know."
In fact, Byron was considered so "dangerous to know" that he eventually left Great Britain for continental Europe, where people were less uptight and judgmental about his tumultuous love life. He decided to leave Britain after his wife filed for an official separation in 1816. This separation was a much bigger deal in 1816 than it would be nowadays, when divorces are relatively common things. There were rumors that Byron abused his wife, that he had affairs with various actresses, that he was bisexual, and even that he had an incestuous affair with his half-sister, August Leigh. The jury's still out on a lot of those rumors, and we may never know the whole truth about Byron's love life. Suffice it to say, though, that there was a sufficient hullabaloo over his personal affairs in England that he thought he'd better move out of the country, at least for a while.
Byron ended up settling down near Geneva, in Switzerland. That's where he met poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Shelley's soon-to-be wife, Mary Godwin (a.k.a. Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein). Byron's love affairs didn't cease when he left England – he ended up having an affair with Mary Shelley's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, and had an illegitimate daughter with her.
Byron continued to produce poetry until the end of his life in 1824. He was only 36 when he died – he caught a fever when he was in Greece, helping to fight for Greek independence from Turkey. Although his name was mud in England for a while after he died (those rumors about his half-sister and his other affairs were hard to squelch), he was eventually celebrated as a freedom fighter as well as one of the Romantic period's greatest poets.
"She Walks in Beauty" is an eighteen-line poem, much shorter than Byron's famous narrative poems, like Childe Harold's Pilgrimage or Don Juan. But despite its relative brevity, "She Walks in Beauty" has become one of the most well-known and easily recognized poems written by Byron. It was penned in 1814 (before the furor over the breakup of his marriage made him leave England), and published in 1815 in a volume of poems called Hebrew Melodies. As the name of the volume suggests, the poems in that volume were written to be set to music. They were originally set to traditional Jewish tunes by composer Isaac Nathan, but several other composers have attempted it since then as well. Check out the "Best of the Web" section for a few examples.
Why Should I Care?
Before you go any further, we should warn you: "She Walks in Beauty" is not a love poem. Sure, it's a celebration of a woman's beauty, but the speaker never says he's in love with her. He just thinks she's really, really gorgeous.
So, what is so special about this particular poem? There are plenty of songs out there about beautiful women, from The Beatles to Oren Lavie. But Byron did it first, and did a pretty awesome job. Next time you find yourself sitting in a coffee shop, trying to find the right words to describe that beautiful individual you can't get out of your mind, chances are you'll find yourself haunted by the words of Byron, the father of all emo poets.