The boys of the newly formed Dead Poets’ Society are holding one of their weekly meetings (except Knox Overstreet, who’s at a party trying to talk to the girl of his dreams) when there’s a sound—the likes of which strikes terror into the hearts of teenage boys: a girl’s laughter. Charlie leads them in, offers them cigarettes, while the rest of the group stares on in silence, not sure what to say, what to think, or even whether or not they’re allowed to speak. The boys eventually try to talk, though it’s Charlie who eventually succeeds in properly “wooing” the girls by of course reciting poetry: first a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning, and then a second one by George Gordon, Lord Byron.
She Walks in Beauty is the standard by which “romantic” poetry is often measured, and this is an issue of some annoyance to me, because I had a wonderful teacher who taught me the proper context of the work. Byron’s poem has often been employed as Charlie so confidently used it, and it made me hate Byron as a young man myself who couldn’t talk to girls—it was a poem of “romance” designed to woo one’s beloved into a state of emotional ecstasy. As I would mature, and my ability to talk to women developed from inane mumbling to a more mature inane combination of smoke signals and interpretive dance, I began to see more and more how that poem was mis-employed, and finally Dr. Catherine Ross helped me figure out why.
I’ll provide the poem here before I continue:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
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!
Now right away, I recognize that many might protest and argue that surely Byron is describing a beautiful woman, but I would remind them that they clearly have forgotten that the poet is never the speaker, unless otherwise specified. This approach is easy to forget once one has become a seasoned reader of poetry, yet time and time again I have experienced and read writing by undergraduates—and this part kills me—as well as graduate students of English proclaiming that the writer is the same as the speaker. This can be quite frustrating as a teacher, though nowhere near the headache of trying to teach Lolita in East Texas. I haven’t suffered that headache personally, but a friend of mine has and usually relates it to me as he sits quietly by himself in the corner of the bar with his bottle of Wild Turkey. Even graduate level students in my Emily Dickinson course need to be reminded almost weekly that the poet is never the speaker unless specified and this lesson seems to be the Sisyphean task of the professor of poetry.
For the record, “The Professor of Poetry” sounds like either the name of the bad guy in the next Avengers movie, or else one the creepiest—or clichéd—serial killer names since Bubbles the Tap Dancing Unicorn.
The first line of the first stanza seems to be the extent of cultural knowledge of the poem, for many people summon that line in order to get that girl in Chemistry class to go out on a date. The disservice this does to the poem is that few people recognize that the speaker is describing a woman of noble character, while demonstrating how her physical beauty reveals her inner character. When the speaker notes “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” the first impression many students seem to argue is that he’s saying this woman is of ultimate physical beauty, but a careful reading reveals that this just isn’t the case. The speaker is certainly complimenting this woman, but rather than just saying that she’s physically perfect, the speaker pushes it to note that she possesses an otherworldly balance. The “gaudy day” is bemoaned for the natural brilliance this woman exudes makes the light of day seem a minimal glow.
This is continued in the second stanza where, as before, the physical description has a tendency to be observed over the deeper sentiment the speaker is attempting to establish. When Byron writes that “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;” his speaker notes that her beauty is a careful symmetry that balances light and dark, but rather than just noticing this beauty, the speaker pushes it further, by remarking on an inward beauty. He says, “Where thoughts serenely sweet express, / How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.”
The final stanza sells it all, however, for the last four lines reveal what has often been lost or purposefully cut from such a brief and wonderful work: “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!” Once again the inward beauty of this nameless woman is adamantly declared to the reader and it’s this last impression that often leaves me sad for this work.
Byron as a man seems often to be missed for his sexuality, a quasi-insatiable pansexual demon worshipper who eats small children and converts people into homosexual slaves—but enough about the movie Gothic. Seriously, did anybody else watch that film and ask themselves if the director even read anything by Byron, just, Jesus.
I remember my professor taking the time to specify to the class that Byron’s particular sexuality was most likely bi-sexual and I distinctly remember this an impressive feat for a teacher to admit, for often my grade-school teachers wouldn’t touch an author’s sexuality with a ten foot pole. The reason for this is often that students are looking for a distraction and so discovering that a male author was “gay” meant that he was somehow inferior and therefore not worth our time. In the case of Byron I still remember the odd murmurings and stupid jokes shared between classmates before class would begin, and that sadness would envelop me until I began reading the poem again.
She Walks in Beauty remains one of my favorite poems however, for there are few written works that surpass the typical romantic lists of beauty (Sorry Mrs. Browning but in your defense you actually lived in a beautiful romance story so you’re still cool) and address the loneliness of another human beings soul. Byron’s poem is more than just a pretty song to a pretty woman, it’s a genuine effort to observe a kind heart in another human being.
Which takes me back to Gothic and the cartoon character of Byron that has lingered unfortunately after him. The film was made in 1986 and is loosely (a cute word for this atrocity) based on the night Mary Shelley supposedly suffered the nightmare of the opening eye that would be the inspiration for Frankenstein. Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Claire Clairmont meet Byron and his personal physician/attendant/creepy toady Dr. Polidori at Byron’s estate and once there they begin to take drugs, read The Monk, have sex with each other, and eventually suffer from frightening Acid trips.
If this seems like I’m being unduly harsh perhaps the reader should observe just the theatrical trailer and determine for themselves whether or not I’m just being a butt.:
Oh hey you’re back. Why are you so pale? Oh no wait, I remember why.
The film for the most part seems to be an excuse to remind the viewers that Byron was physically deformed (he had a clubfoot) and that he had sex with men. Once again it’s the salacious Byron that everyone is familiar with and what gets buried beneath this mountain of crap that not even Chanticleer would want to crow from is the man and the writer.
Byron as a man was rich with passion, and as a writer he achieved wonders both in terms of commercial success as well as artistic brilliance. Looking at this then the reader may question why She Walks in Beauty is the first example I would hop onto. The reason for this, goes back to Charlie Dalton and to some extent to Gothic. It is the perceptions of the outward form that at first marvel or repulse us and looking to the poem the young woman described is beautiful. It is upon reading the poem and understanding how her tresses reveal her character that she is seen as more than beautiful, she is human being of noble stature.
In my experience with the Romantics there is either attention paid to the domestic or else the sublime natural wonders of the world. She Walks in Beauty is one of these small quotidian wonders akin to We are Seven or The Lamb; poems that address the reality of our day to day lives and find a hidden beauty that speaks to the larger fabric of the human condition. In poetry describing a woman, and here I have to fall back upon my position as a man, beauty has often been a tool for wooing and romance, and Byron’s poem seems a wonderful opportunity away from that tradition as well as for teachers hoping to begin conversations with students that aren’t the same lecture on love every semester. The poem is a chance to observe how we recognize goodness in other people, and how that goodness affects us in our lives.
I’ve tried numerous times to write about Byron for the website and each time I have been carefully and kindly rejected for my efforts. I knew going forward however that I had to get at least one essay about the man in because, while I can’t stand Childe Harold and Don Juan is too long to review, Byron as a writer has always impressed me. There is the nasty snark and sarcasm that is the stuff of Gothic, and had I the time and security I would love to discuss how his sexuality comes about in his work, but if I have to have any kind of last word about the man in terms of my intellectual impression it’s that he achieved his passion.
Write of the writer not the cartoon character…and also if you’re going to make a movie about someone, please do your research because when you make bad movies all it does is annoy nerds like me for weeks afterwards. I’m still reeling from that film 47 Ronin, seriously it could have been great but I mean either make a supernatural epic and load it with Samurai killing dragons or just make a historical piece which could still be interesting. Just…gah…Gothic.