The interfaith marriage of two songs


I don’t remember much of what I had learned in high school but for some reason Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty” Stuck with me.  There was something unforgettable with the magical vision his words created when he wrote:

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 mellow'd 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!

When we had learned this poem in English class we only focused on the language and completely neglected the historical and cultural context of this poem. Recently, for some unexplained reason, my brain started to recite this poem. I started to look online to learn more about it.  One piece of information led to another, gathering into a beautiful picture of history and art.

Lord Byron wrote “She Walks in Beauty” as a song, one of several songs that the Jewish composer Isaac Nathan gave Jewish tunes to, and were published in 1815 in a collection called Hebrew Melodies



The muse for this poem was Lord Byron’s cousin who was married in her mourning gown. The composer Nathan gave this poem the Sephardic Jewish tune of the liturgical hymn (Piyut in Hebrew) “Lecha Dodi”.  Lecha Dodi” (to you my uncle) was written by the Kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, in the 16th century in the city of Safed in Israel. Jews all over the world sing “Lecha Dodi” on Friday night to welcome the Sabbath (she walks in beauty like the night). The song expresses longing both for the holy day of rest and for the salvation of Zion. God is the uncle, the groom, who is waiting for his bride - the Sabbath or the people of Israel.  The bride who is walking towards her expecting groom is leaving behind her mourning and hardship of the past. She is stepping towards her beloved who carries a promise of a brighter and happy future.


Let’s go, my beloved, to meet the bride,
and let us welcome the presence of Shabbat.

"Observe" and "recall" in a single utterance,
We were made to hear by the unified God,
God is one and God’s Name is one,
In fame and splendor and praiseful song.

To greet Shabbat let’s go, let’s travel,
For she is the wellspring of blessing,
From the start, from ancient times she was chosen,
Last made, but first planned.

Sanctuary of the king, royal city,
Arise! Leave from the midst of the turmoil;
Long enough have you sat in the valley of tears
And He will take great pity upon you compassionately.

Shake yourself free, rise from the dust,
Dress in your garments of splendor, my people,
By the hand of Jesse’s son of Bethlehem,
Redemption draws near to my soul.

Rouse yourselves! Rouse yourselves!
Your light is coming, rise up and shine.
Awaken! Awaken! utter a song,
The glory of the Lord is revealed upon you.

Do not be embarrassed! Do not be ashamed!
Why be downcast? Why groan?
All my afflicted people will find refuge within you
And the city shall be rebuilt on her hill.

Your despoilers will become your spoil,
Far away shall be any who would devour you,
Your God will rejoice concerning you,
As a groom rejoices over a bride.

To your right and your left you will burst forth,
And the Lord will you revere
By the hand of a child of Perez,
We will rejoice and sing happily.

Come in peace, crown of her husband,
Both in happiness and in jubilation
Amidst the faithful of the treasured nation
Come O Bride! Come O Bride!


There are several similarities between the two poems, despite the 300 years between them, despite the fact that one is religious and the other is not, despite the fact that one poet is a rabbi in Israel and the other is a poet in England. They were both inspired by the vision of the beauty of a bride walking down the aisle. I find that by connecting the first verse of “She Walks in Beauty” and the last verse of “Lecha Dodi” we receive a poem that explains itself.
 
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 mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

Come in peace, crown of her husband,
Both in happiness and in jubilation
Amidst the faithful of the treasured nation
Come O Bride! Come O Bride!

After learning about these two poems, Nathan’s decision to give the old Jewish tune of “Lecha Dodi” to Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty” looks like a match made in heaven. My hope is that that today's musicians would perform both songs together as one.

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