The poet describes a woman who “walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies” (lines 1-2). Immediately the light of stars and the shadow of night are brought forth as contrasts, foreshadowing the further contrasts the poet notices regarding this beautiful woman. Seeing her eyes, he declares that in her face “all that’s best of dark and bright” are joined. Her beauty is contrasted to the “gaudy” daylight.
In the second stanza, the poet reflects on the balance in the woman’s beauty: “One shade the more, one ray the less” (line 7) would hinder the “nameless grace” which surrounds her. He then turns to her inner life, seeing her external beauty as an expression of thoughts that dwell in a place (perhaps her mind, or her beautiful head and face) both “pure” and “dear” (line 18).
The final stanza returns to her face, but again sees the silent expression of peace and calm in her cheek, brow, and smiles. Her pleasant facial expressions eloquently but innocently express her inner goodness and peacefulness.
“She Walks in Beauty” is written in iambic tetrameter, “a meter commonly found in hymns and associated with ‘sincerity’ and ‘simplicity’” (Moran 2). Byron’s chosen meter conveys to the reader both his purity of intent (there is but one subject for this poem, the lady’s virtuous beauty) and a poetic parallel to his subject (the lady’s beauty arises from her purity or simplicity of nature). It is an astonishingly chaste poem given its author’s reputation for licentiousness, lust, and debauchery.
Byron wrote this poem about Mrs. Wilmot, his cousin Robert Wilmot’s wife. It echoes Wordsworth’s earlier “The Solitary Reaper” (1807) in its conceit: the speaker’s awe upon seeing a woman walking in her own aura of beauty. While ostensibly about a specific woman, the poem extends to encompass the unobtainable and ideal. The lady is not beautiful in herself, but she walks in an aura of Beauty (Flesch 1). In contrast to popular conceptions, her beauty is not easily described as brilliant or radiant, but it is also dark “like the night” (line 1) However, “all that’s best of dark and bright” (line 3) meet in her face and eyes, suggesting that while she walks in a dark beauty, she is herself a brighter, more radiant beauty. To further convolute the image, the woman is described as having “raven tress[es]” (black hair) (line 9), connecting her to the darkness, while the “nameless grace” (line 8) “lightens” her face—possibly a play on the word, meaning the grace alights on her face, but also including the brighter aspect of lightening her countenance.
Indeed, the beauty of Wilmot is found largely in its balance of opposites: the darkness she walks in (and her dark hair) counterpoise her fair skin and the bright pureness of her soul. In this lady, the “tender light” is “mellowed,” in contrast to the “gaudy day” which has only the glaring sun and no shade to soften its radiance. Thus the lady’s simple, inner perfection produces a beauty superior to nature itself.
This grace is “nameless” in that it is ineffable. It is a common idea to say that there is no way for human word or verse to encompass it, so it must remain nameless even as the speaker perceives it clearly. Prose cannot come close to a description of this abstract beauty, so the speaker must attempt it in verse.
These issues raise a concern that the woman seems so pure because she is so simple; she wears her thoughts directly on her face, and she shows no evidence of discrimination of better from worse. Her mind is “at peace with all below” (line 17), and she loves innocently. If she is beautiful like the night, perhaps her mind truly is like a sky without any clouds of trouble or confusion. In contrast, she has been able to spend her days in “goodness,” the tints in her face glowing like stars in the sky, small punctuations in a vast emptiness above.
Some critics maintain, however, that the glimpse of Wilmot which inspired this poem was afforded Byron at a funeral; thus the images of darkness which surround the lady can be drawn from the mourning clothes she and those around her wear. This beauty is “like the night” because this time of spiritual darkness—mourning the passing of a loved one—does not detract from her beauty, but instead accentuates it.
In any case, in this woman dark and light are reconciled. This reconciliation is made possible by the main sources of the lady’s beauty: her mind “at peace with all below” and her “heart whose love is innocent” (line 18). By possessing a genial mind and innocent heart, the lady can bring the beauty of both darkness and light out and together without contradiction; her purity softens the edges of the contrasts.
Byron eschews erotic or physical desire in this poem, preferring instead to express the lady’s beauty without professing his own emotions. He restricts his physical descriptions of her to her eyes, brow, hair, and smiles. Her loveliness has to do with her innocence and her “days in goodness spent” (line 16), whether it results from her virtue or simply from the poet’s imagination of that virtue. After all, if we bracket the likely autobiographical element of the poem, we do not know whether the speaker has caught anything more than a few moments’ glimpse of a beautiful woman walking by.