The Enduring Allure of Byron’s She Walks in Beauty

She Walks in Beauty Lord Bryon How to Read a Poem aloud
The poems that endure, endure for a reason, but I usually can’t say why. For every beautiful, cutting, or mysteriously gripping poem you read to me, I can read you a dozen more. But some of them have, I don’t know. . .a nameless grace? One image the more, one line the less, and the poem becomes impaired, impure, a little less lit by stars.

Dissection can surely uncover the technical workings of a poem’s anatomy. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with dismembering a poem in the name of literary investigation–it can be disturbingly fun, in fact– you won’t find its soul that way. You can memorize your lover’s every hair, freckle, and laugh line with a series of photographs, but until you spend time with him, you will never really know him or her.

On my quest to experience some classic poems afresh, I decided to first take up “She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron. Of course I’ve heard it countless times. In a way, that’s the biggest challenge with the classics. We hear them so much, we stop listening.

So my goal was to listen. Really, really, listen. First I read the poem aloud about ten times. Then, for an entire morning and afternoon, I read it aloud on the hour, sometimes every half hour, and just let it work its way in. Different words and images hit me at different times. Sometimes I lingered over “cloudless climes and starry skies,” placing myself in the night. Sometimes I got tangled in the “raven tresses.” I read it quickly, I read it slowly. I read it loudly and quietly. I read it while making coffee, stir-frying zucchini, walking upstairs with laundry, and, well, going to that other room where people tend to read.

What did I discover?

This is where I need to be careful. As tempting as it was to consult the “outside,” I refrained from reading commentaries or talking to professor friends while spending the day with this poem. Likewise, I wouldn’t want this post to color your date with “She Walks in Beauty” too much. But here are a few questions I began to ask myself while reading:

● What is the best of dark and light in this poem? With “she?” With a person I know?

● How do the rhyme and rhythm of the poem help me “walk” with her? How does it feel to walk with her?

● “One shade the more, one ray the less.” What or whom do I have these kinds of feelings for? Why?

● What kind of beauty do I see in this poem? What does beauty mean here? With someone important to me?

Of course I’m not finished. That is why the poem endures.

What about you? Go ahead. Read it aloud. Once, twice, on the hour. Try to name what is nameless, which, I believe, is the greatest reward of reading poetry.

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

Photo by Ashton, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan, author of How to Read a Poem.

Elizabeth Bishop Collides with Mockingjay

Autumn Trees The Hanging Tree To a Tree

The other night, I took Elizabeth Bishop: The Complete Poems and a glass of red wine upstairs to the bathtub while my kids hung out in the family room with their dad. I call this combo my “mom medicine.”

I started off with some of Bishop’s well-known pieces, like “Filling Station,” “The Armadillo,” and “One Art,” inhaling some of the beautiful, witty lines I hadn’t visited since college. Then I flipped back to a section titled, “Poems Written in Youth ”– poems, according to the volume’s Publisher’s Note, that Bishop “would not have reprinted. . .for she was too severe a critic of her own work.”

Of course, that note made me want to read them all the more.

I began to recite some of the lines Bishop wrote when she was a teenager (still exquisite, of course). Then the marching began.

Two weeks ago, I had taken my middle schooler to see Mockingjay, Part 1. At one point in the movie, Katniss, the main character played by Jennifer Lawrence, sings the haunting “The Hanging Tree.” My daughter sat transfixed. And she wasn’t alone. The song quickly moved up the charts upon the movie’s release.

That night, my daughter taught the song to her younger sister, and now, to my annoyance, the two were singing the dirge-like tune quite aggressively, marching throughout the house. Their pounding feet sent waves through my bathwater.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
They strung up a man
They say who murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where the dead man called out
For his love to flee.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met at midnight
In the hanging tree.

And so forth, for several more stanzas. It is a disturbingly beautiful song, but now I wanted to keep reading the Bishop poem open before me:

To a Tree

Oh, tree outside my window, we are kin,
For you ask nothing of a friend but this:
To lean against the window and peer in
And watch me move about! Sufficient bliss

For me, who stand behind its framework stout,
Full of my tiny tragedies and grotesque grieves,
To lean against the window and peer out,
Admiring infinites’mal leaves.

Of course. I was getting distracted reading a young girl’s poem about a tree because my two young girls were marching and singing about a tree.

But then the connections began to hit me. One scene is haunting and one comforting; however, both capture the intimacy and mystery of our relationships with trees–how the young are drawn to them irresistibly as places to love, grieve, and imagine. As places to find oneself or lose oneself. Trees are our mirror selves of growth, change, and loss, limb by swaying limb.

I won’t get into any mystical theories about how or why these poetic connections happen, but they seem to happen for me all the time. Most people would probably say they are coincidences. Fine. I can accept that. But even with coincidences, why not have a little fun? Pick up a book of poems, and start reading them aloud. Don’t read with a goal to “get” the poems. Enjoy the sounds and images and see how they touch on the events, experiences, and feelings in your own life. Write these connections in the margins. They may change tomorrow or the next day. No matter. See how the poems speak to and reinforce your day now. These connections will make the poems more real. And perhaps your life.

Reading poetry. Strange things do happen here. And that is sufficient bliss for me.

Photo by pslee, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Tania Runyan.

Journey into Poetry: Daniel Conroy

Journey into Poetry Abstract Landscape

Since my earliest days, I’ve had an interest in writing. At age seven, I would write page after page about imaginary creatures—a result of my early exposure to Monster Manuals from Dungeons and Dragons. As a teen, I took to writing a journal. In just one year, I filled two hundred pages with poems of struggle: death, loneliness, love, or cliché nonsense. But I would also write my resolutions: accepting fate, loving solitude, and embracing humanity. Each scattered and jittery work became a brick in the pillar of my life.

Without a pen, I could hardly tell anyone who I was or what I believed in. There was no time in conversation to get my words in line for a proper parade into someone’s understanding. Wood pulp and ink gave my thoughts a grand uniform that allowed them to impress with greater ability than any tongue might. Soon written and spoken words became similar, and what I penned became what I verbalized. Without the gift of writing, I would still be a mute voice, looking on the world rather than living in it.

About Daniel Conroy, How to Read a Poem Scholarship Applicant

Daniel Conroy attends Colorado State University at Pueblo, pursuing a double major in Chemistry and Biology. Born in Texas, raised in Appalachia and Colorado (with intermittent sojourns to Europe), he maintains that literature was a comfort in confusion. He enjoys playing with expanded diction and meandering sentences in prose, but verse is his predominant form of expression. Daniel’s favored poets include Baudelaire, Shelley, and Poe. In novelists, he favors the fantasy of R.A. Salvatore and the realism of Thomas Hardy, particularly Jude the Obscure.

Photo by Gemma Stiles, Creative Commons, via Flickr.