Monday, February 15, 2016

Byron’s ‘She Walks In Beauty’

Sissel Kyrkjebø, a Norwegian soprano. sings the first stanza of “She Walks in Beauty,” Lord Byron’s poem of the same name, published in 1814. This video clip is from the opening credits of the 2004 British-American film production of Vanity Fair, an adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s well-known novel, Vanity Fair (1848), which had the subheading, “A Novel without a Hero.”  

This Victorian novel is, in many respects, a satire of early 19th century British life—making its setting the time when Byron penned this poem. The music in this video is by Mychael Danna, a Canadian film composer. What interests me the most, however, is not the film, which is good enough to suit modern sensibilities, but the story of Byron’s poem. In “She Walks in Beauty Poem” (April 19, 2015), Marilee Hanson writes a short analysis of the 18-line poem by the Romantic poet:
This is perhaps the most famous of Byron’s short poems. On 11 June 1814, Byron attended a fashionable party at Lady Sitwell’s, and met – for the first time – his cousin, Lady Wilmot Horton. The young lady wore a mourning dress and it was the contrast between her youthful beauty and her somber attire that sparked the poem. He wrote it that same evening, and it was included in his 1815 collection, Hebrew Melodies.
It is written in iambic tetrameter, a style typically used for hymns. This makes perfect sense for the Hebrew Melodies collection was intended to be – literally – a collection of Old Testament-themed melodies. Lyrics were to be provided by Byron, and music by Isaac Nathan, a Rabbinical student lately turned composer who was four years Byron’s junior. Their collaboration was encouraged by Byron’s friend (and banker), Douglas Kinnaird. Byron quite generously gave Nathan copyright to his ‘lyrics’. Nathan’s music was intended to reflect the spirit and style of old Hebrew folk songs.
You can read more about Isaac Nathan [here & here]; and you can listen to a full rendition of this Romantic-era song as well as a selection of Hebrew Melodies [here].

She Walks in Beauty
By Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron)

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!

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