"She Walks in Beauty" has such a regular meter and rhyme scheme that you almost find yourself swaying along with the rhythm as you read it. The sound of the poem is mesmerizing and melodic. Take the first two lines:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
Byron mostly chooses long vowel sounds that make you open up your mouth as you read it out loud. The alliteration in the second line sounds particularly soothing and musical. (After all, Byron did intend for the poem to be set to music.) The rocking, steady rhythm of the lines sounds as effortless as this woman's beauty.
We usually refer to this poem simply by its first line, "She Walks in Beauty." But the first line does more than introduce the subject of the poem – a beautiful woman. The first line of the poem (and therefore the title) is an apparently conscious echo of the famous sonnet by William Shakespeare, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" (Sonnet 18). Except, of course, instead of comparing the beautiful woman to a "summer's day," Byron compares her to "night." So he's not just setting up a contrast between night and day, he's also setting up a contrast between himself and Shakespeare.
This is a pretty gutsy move, if you think about it – even in the early nineteenth century, when Byron was writing, Shakespeare was generally accepted to be the greatest English poet of all time. Usually, when poets referenced Shakespeare, they did so in an almost reverential way. But here, Byron gives Shakespeare a shout-out, only to turn Shakespeare's simile on its ear and reverse it. Based on what we know about Byron (and check out the "In a Nutshell" for more on that), this kind of gutsy move was entirely in keeping with his general character.
The setting of the poem is never made explicit – the woman is compared, in the opening lines, to "night" and "starry skies," so we imagine the entire poem taking place during the night. It's a clear night, and everything is lit only by moonlight and stars. The soft, "tender light" (line 5) creates the perfect mood for telling this unnamed woman just how gorgeous she is. But we can't forget that she's good, too – you can imagine trying to take advantage of the low light to slip an arm around the beautiful lady… But then she pulls away, because her "heart" is just too "innocent" for that kind of thing.
The speaker of "She Walks in Beauty" admires the effortless harmony of a woman's beauty, and tells us that it's all about the perfect balance of light and dark in her whole face and figure. He never says he's in love with her, but the reader can guess that he's attracted to her – after all, he can't stop talking about her hair, her eyes, her cheeks… the list goes on. But in case you were starting to suspect that the speaker wants to seduce the unnamed beauty, he starts telling us that her good looks are really a reflection of her inner goodness. And purity! She's so innocent! Her "mind is at peace"! There's nothing going on between them, honest! At least… not on her side. By the end of the poem, it seems like the speaker is protesting a little too much. By insisting repeatedly that the lady is pure and that her "love is innocent," it's hard not to suspect that he perhaps wishes that weren't the case.
This is a pretty accessible poem, even for beginning readers of poetry. The trickiest thing about it is the syntax: the structure of the sentences doesn't always match up with the structure of the lines, which can throw readers off if they aren't careful. There are also some tough vocabulary words. But it's a short poem, and it talks about something we're all familiar with (beauty). So even if you find the syntax a bit tricky, hopefully this means you still have some firm ground to keep your footing as you climb.
That's right, you heard it here first: Byron is the father of all angst-ridden poets and emo singers and songwriters. Unattainable beauty, unrequited love, forbidden love, hopeless love… these are Byron's bread and butter. So any time you come across a Romantic-era poem with a lot of highfalutin language and beautiful images that describe the speaker's despair and undying love for someone who doesn't know he exists, chances are you're reading a poem by Byron.
The poem is divided into three stanzas of six lines each, with an ABABAB rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is pretty tidy, but what's up with the meter? The "meter" of a poem refers to the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. Hold on – before you tune out, we'll explain.
OK in terms of meter here, we've said that the poem is written in iambic tetrameter. But what the heck does that mean as well? "Iambic" refers to the pattern of stresses in the line. An "iamb" is an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable: da-DUM. "Tetrameter" means that there are four ("tetra") iambs in the line: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. Easy, right? Let's look at those iambs in action…
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
If we bold the syllables that you'd naturally stress, you'll see what we mean:
She walks in beau-ty, like the night
Of cloud-less climes and star-ry skies;
And look – there are four bold syllables per line: four iambs = iambic tetrameter. There you go.
You hardly notice the iambic rhythm as you're reading unless you know to look for it – you probably just notice that the rhythm of the words is very even and smooth. The only time you do notice the rhythm is when it changes. Check out lines 3 and 4:
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her as-pect and her eyes.
Line 3 is regular iambic tetrameter – no problem. But look what happens in line 4! Instead of starting with an unstressed syllable like all the other lines in the poem, this one starts with a stressed syllable. This is what critics call a "metrical inversion," in which the usual pattern is inverted, or reversed. Why would Byron do this? No, he didn't mess up; he was too good of a craftsman to make a mistake like that. Every other line in the poem is steady iambic tetrameter, so you could argue that this one break in the rhythm calls attention to the steadiness of the rest of it. After all, this is a poem about a woman's effortless grace and beauty, so it makes sense that the poem's meter should sound just as effortless. There are other possible interpretations of this metrical inversion, though. What effect does it have on your reading?
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The contrast between night and day, and dark and light, is the image that sets up the whole poem. But, as we point out in the "What's Up With the Title?" section, this contrast is a startling image: we're not used to comparing beautiful women to "night," we're used to comparing them to "summer's days," like in Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. But Byron turns that convention on its ear, and suggests that it's the harmony of two contrasting opposites, like night and day, or light and dark, that make something (or someone) really beautiful.
The speaker never says that he's in love with the woman he describes, but you might very well suspect that he has the hots for her – after all, he goes on and on about how gorgeous she is. But the final line of the poem seems to be an attempt to dispel the reader's suspicions: he insists that her "love," at least, is "innocent." He describes her personality almost as much as her exterior beauty, by the end.
It's important to note that the beautiful woman is a brunette. What's so special about that, you ask? Well, in Byron's day, conventional English beauties were all pale and blonde. So for him to write a poem that not only praises the beauty of a woman with "raven" (black) hair, but even goes so far as to say that real beauty requires a contrast of light and dark, or day and night, was pretty startling.
The poet keeps emphasizing that the nameless beauty isn't just a pretty face – her exterior beauty is a reflection of her interior goodness. He keeps remarking on both her smiles and her blushes, which, after all, are half-unconscious external responses to internal moods or feelings. So there's yet another binary, or set of opposites, to keep track of in this poem – the woman's inside and outside traits.
There's not a lot of sex going on in this poem. Not that we think the speaker would object to it, mind you, but the unnamed lady is too "innocent" for any of that. If you want steaminess in a Byron poem, we suggest you try Don Juan instead.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 (lines 1-2). The opening simile of the poem, which compares the beautiful woman to "the night / of cloudless climes and starry skies," is a reference to the famous sonnet by Shakespeare that opens with, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" Byron makes the gutsy move of borrowing Shakespeare's idea, and then reversing it.