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This essay was originally published on The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism’s blog.  The full essay can be read on their home page by accessing the link at the end.


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, George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron_by_Richard_Westall_(2)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;

And all that’s best of dark and bright AAA 3

     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 writing_18-300x234experienced 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.


In Defense of Mr. Byron