I hated analyzing poetry in English class.
Like…I really hated it.
Reading the poems was fine. They were interesting, and some of them spoke to me on an emotional level I couldn’t put into words.
But then came the homework, and there was always something about “scanning” and “meter” and “rhyme scheme” that completely took the fun out of the poem for me.
It seems ironic that I should become an English major after hating poetry analysis that much, but something changed my mind, and I decided to commit to earning my Bachelor’s degree in literature. Within a couple of months, I took my first literary analysis class, and I decided to analyze one of my favorite poems for an essay.
I had never bothered to think about what the poem might “mean”–I liked it because it was beautiful, because the language resonated with me for some indefinable reason–but as I studied the poem, I suddenly realized that “analyzing” poetry didn’t have to be boring at all.
In fact, it might be even more fun than merely reading the poem.
“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!
–Lord Byron, 1815
Step 1: Find the symbols
At first glance, it seems like this is just one more poem flattering a lady the poet is in love with–but with poetry, you don’t have to take things at face value. (You certainly can–but where’s the fun in that?)
I noticed that two seemingly opposite qualities were perfectly united in the woman of this poem: darkness and light.
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.
I made an assumption here: that the word “and” in the two lines I just quoted is separating the same concepts both times. “Dark” and “her aspect” go together, as do “bright” and “her eyes.”
An “aspect” is someone’s appearance, so the poem appears to be associating “darkness” with the woman’s physical appearance.
Eyes, on the other hand, are often associated with the soul or the internal person in literature, so I concluded that “brightness” and light in the poem are associated with who the woman is inside.
A quick scan of the rest of the poem supports my conclusion. Every time the woman’s physical appearance is mentioned, it is is connection with something dark:
She walks in beauty, like the night…
…waves in every raven tress…
And every time her inner self is mentioned, it is connected with light:
…grace…softly lightens o’er her face”
…tints that glow
But tell of days in goodness spent
Don’t be afraid of insinuation.
The woman in the poem walks “like the night.” One of the essays I read while researching this poem pointed out the similarity between the first line of this poem and the phrase “woman of the night,” a euphemism for a prostitute (page 277 on the link).
Byron makes very clear that this woman is “pure” and “innocent.” There is no hint of anything immoral or scandalous in her.
But he still used a phrase alluding to a profession no one of his day would have considered “pure.” He doesn’t just want us to think of the woman’s physical appearance: he wants us to think of her sensuality, her consciousness of her appearance.
As we dig into the poem, we find out why.
Step 2: Look at structure
The poem has three stanzas, what we sometimes call “verses.” Each one focuses on the way light and darkness can merge together.
In the first stanza, Byron shows us that nature blends light and darkness perfectly. Think of the way stars subtly illuminate the night sky. The stars accentuate the darkness, and the darkness mellows the starlight: the stars we see at night are not as overpowering as the light of the sun during the day.
In the same way, the woman’s morality accentuates her physical beauty. Beyond that, though, her physical beauty–and, on some level, her consciousness of it, mellow her morality. She is not a seductive temptress–but neither is she a goody-two shoes. The best of sensuality and virtue combine in her.
In the second stanza, Byron shows how the woman’s virtue has infused her physical beauty with its essence. She possesses “nameless grace”, an internal beauty that moves in her hair and brightens her face.
In fact, her beauty depends on this inner goodness she possesses. If she had “one shade the more” of sensuality or “one ray the less” of goodness, her beauty would be corrupted by guile and seductiveness.
Instead, her innocence makes her physical beauty inseparable from her virtue.
The final stanza shows how her physical beauty accentuates her innocence. Her smiles are winning, but they aren’t intended to manipulate or ensnare people. Her face glows when she blushes, but instead of being “sultry,” it’s evidence of “days in goodness spent” and “a heart whose love is innocent.”
We see the stars because they shine against the darkness of the night sky. In the same way, this woman’s inner beauty might go unnoticed if it weren’t for the trace of sensuality in her physical appearance.
Step 3: Pay attention to the words.
Poets choose the words they use. I know it’s tempting in English class to complain, “They just wrote what sounded good! My teacher is reading waaay too much into this.”
You’re not completely wrong. It’s definitely possible to read way more into a poem than what the poet intended.
However, keep this in mind: words are poets’ business. And they don’t use them lightly.
Byron chooses the words in this poem to highlight the delicate balance he sees in this woman. In the first stanza, he calls the day “gaudy.” According to the dictionary, “gaudy” means “cheaply showy in a tasteless way.” It’s just too much.
If this woman were all virtue with no care for her appearance, Byron thinks she would be unattractive. Her supposed “goodness” would be tasteless.
“…half impaired the nameless grace…”
The second stanza shows us the opposite: all sensuality with no virtue. Byron says,
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace…
The word “impair” means to “diminish in ability, value, excellence, etc.” In Byron’s view, if the woman were more sensual or less virtuous, her beauty would be diminished. Not destroyed–but lessened.
Without her innocence, her pure intentions, her internal beauty, this woman would be less lovely.
We often associate innocence with childhood–and no woman wants to be childlike. Rest assured, ladies: innocence does not mean naivete.
To be innocent is to be free from “evil intent or motive.” You can be street-smart without being manipulative. You can be aware of injustice without wishing others evil. You can be innocent without being ignorant.
To Byron, it is the absence of ulterior motives that makes the woman beautiful. Her virtue enhances her physical beauty.
Step 4: Meter matters.
You remember how they make you analyze meter in school? That’s because meter really does matter.
Take a deep breath. Let it out. It’s not that bad.
Poets choose meter. Sometimes they do it because it sounds good–but sometimes, there’s a more profound reason.
This poem is written in iambic tetrameter:
- iambic: unstressed syllable, then stressed syllable (she WALKS in BEAUty LIKE the NIGHT)
- tetrameter: do that 4 times per line
Iambic tetrameter is usually associated with “sincerity” and “simplicity”, according to the essay I linked above (page 277 again). It’s the kind of meter used in poems about idyllic country life or childhood memories–things that are real and simple and good.
By choosing iambic tetrameter, Byron is making a point about the kind of woman she is. She is everything a woman ought to be: not pretentious about her virtue, not overly obsessed with her appearance. She is simple, and beautiful, and good.
Step 5: Why does it matter?
You don’t have to do this last step. You can appreciate how detailed Byron’s praise of this woman is and leave it at that.
But making a real-life connection is so much more satisfying.
So why does Byron’s message about sensuality and virtue in balance matter to me? In short: be kind and good–but also, be beautiful. And either way, don’t overdo it.
Be kind and good.
You can choose to be kind.
You can choose to be compassionate.
You can choose to weed out ulterior motives like greed and malice and bitterness.
You can choose to love instead of hate, to forgive instead of seek revenge.
But don’t try too hard. Don’t become prideful about the virtuous things you do. Don’t go out of your way to show other people what a good person you are.
According to Byron, true goodness will shine through in your smiles and even in the way you walk. Unless you try too hard.
Then it’s just tacky.
Please understand: I’m not recommending you spend hours getting ready in the morning (unless you really want to). I’m not recommending you obsess over clothes and makeup and hair and all the things that go into your physical appearance.
Remember: don’t overdo it.
Being beautiful doesn’t need to mean anything fancy. In my life, it means being presentable. I comb my hair. I wash my face. I wear something that makes me feel good about myself. I wear makeup if I feel like it.
It’s not vain to look nice. Vanity is when your appearance is your only concern, your top priority. To be presentable–to feel good about your appearance–is to give your physical appearance its due place. Not the most important, but not unimportant either.
This matters to me.
Beauty and virtue balance each other out. Each is enhanced by the presence of the other. Too much of one or too little of the other would disrupt the natural balance of one’s inner and outer qualities–and erring on the side of one’s appearance is no worse than erring on the side of “being good.”
I want to be virtuous, but I also want to be beautiful. This poem reassures me that I don’t have to choose.
Have you ever felt like you have to choose between virtue and beauty? Do you enjoy digging into poems?