She Walks in Beauty

I mentioned that I went to a wedding in Shropshire some time back. At the wedding was one of those rarest of things, though becoming more common as people seek to imbue civil ceremonies with some of the gravitas of a religious wedding: a poetry reading. It wasn’t Houseman, of course – that would hardly fit the occasion (a funeral, maybe) – but this poem of Byron’s.

It’s an enchanting poem, which is what the occasion demanded. The couple has the rest of their lives for mundaneness and domesticity, far better on a wedding day to contemplate the perfect, heavenly beauty and grace that the woman – ahem, sorry, lady – in this poem embodies. Oh I know, it’s an impossible, and rather aristocratic ideal of womanhood; but why not put some expectation on the woman for a change? The groom, after all, used his wedding speech to promise, among other things, to learn to drive, something he’s been resisting for years. Poor thing. I digress, though. Here’s 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!

Speaking of weddings (for the last time in a while, I promise – I’m boring myself here), Byron himself was married in the small town of Seaham, County Durham. I don’t know why – I suppose the surrounding area was part of his lands or his bride’s, or those of one of his aristocratic chums. The town makes much of the connection – not only is there a street or two named after him, but a whole shopping centre, whose main attraction is a Morrisons, I think.

Seaham now is a pleasant enough seaside town with a decaying feel to it, like much of Durham’s ‘coal coast’. The beach to the south of the town is littered with the remains of industrial materials, which is interesting in itself, while the beach north of the town is nice for walking – though the muddy cliffs seem to be crumbling into the sea. It would be a strange place to contemplate eternal, platonic beauty these days, although there’s always the sea and the sky. There is beauty of another kind, however: you’ll almost always see a kestrel, for example, hovering over the ferns and grasses over the cliff, and, if you’re lucky, another kind of bird, whom I’ll save for my next post.

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