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Beauty, from "She Walks in Beauty," a poem by Lord Byron

Subthemes: Culturally Defined, Gendered, Beauty as Comparison

Byron’s poem creates a graceful image of a beautiful woman. Her features (aspect), gaze (eyes), dark hair (raven tresses), complexion (cheek) and forehead (brow) bewitch him and us. In the soft evening light that brings out the best, She walks in beauty.

“She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron (George Gordon)

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!

Culturally Defined: “She Walks in Beauty” was written in 1814, when English women of breeding and wealth favored the Empire line, without corsets but with pantalettes. How they fixed their hair, enhanced their complexion, or highlighted their features followed the expectations and fashion style of Byron’s high society. In the rest of the world, however, the hallmarks of feminine beauty varied widely. Where you live and your social strata define the prevailing view of beauty. At different times and places people have found powdered wigs, beauty marks, cod pieces, bee-stung lips, petticoats, and hoop skirts attractive, if not beautiful. Size 1 may be the paradigm where you can never be too rich or too thin, but Rubenesque plumpness makes for the winning look in another culture. The qualities that give pleasure to the senses depend on where we live.

The dominant elite sets the tone for what fashion is in vogue. What you are accustomed to seeing sets your image of beauty. The desirable look elsewhere may diverge widely: dreadlocks, hair braids, lip plates, nose studs, scarring, goth makeup, shaved skulls, pale skin, or full-sleeve tattoos. Our images of beauty change as fashions evolve or die (RIP bowler hats, walking sticks, cravats, breeches, three-piece suits, beehives).

Gendered: The poem adores a beautiful woman – She walks in beauty. The adjective “beautiful” applied to describe a person more commonly applies to a woman than to a man. Men are praised as “cute,” “good-looking,” “rugged,” or “handsome,” but less commonly as “beautiful.” Women compete in beauty contests, but outside of LGBQ culture you don’t hear about male beauty contests. Exceptional women, by contrast, may be described as “a real beauty”, which suggests comeliness is complemented by elegance and grace, or terms such as a “knockout”, which suggest a more primal erotic appeal. The adjectives “pretty” and “cute” fall short of “beautiful.”

Beauty as Comparison: Partly because assessments of good looks are subjective and hard to put into words, and partly because we refer to it so often, comparative analogies swirl around “beauty”. For example, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. One of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “Shall I compare thee to a summer day” pours out several comparisons to natural beauty. Or the phrase, “she’s a real peach” relies on a comparison to the smooth, soft fruit that smells and tastes good. “Pretty as a picture” and “looks like an angel” evoke a favorable image but don’t specifically describe. The lyrics “I thought the sun rose in your eyes” compare the effect beauty has on the beholder to the splendor of dawn.

 

Calmly, with simple words, Byron memorably evokes a vision of a woman. Nothing cheap, nothing overdone, everything natural, Byron drew a pitch-perfect portrait of female beauty.

To consider subthemes of Beauty that are not associated with this poem or the other three creative works discussed in this set, please visit Additional Subthemes. Read this for more about Themes from Art.

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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