What is it about?
The poem recalls the end of a previous relationship that the narrator (or Byron himself) still feels sad and regretful about. The relationship was secret and ever since the break-up, he has been unable to outwardly express his sadness. Byron also feels that his lover was untrue to him and is still hurt, long after the events.
When We Two Parted by Lord Byron
In silence and tears
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sank chill on my brow -
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame;
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me.
A knell in mine ear;
A shudder come o'er me -
Why wert thou so dear?
They knew not I knew thee.
Who knew thee too well -
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met -
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.
The poem has four stanzas of eight lines each, but these lines are rather unusual in their form. They are largely written in falling rhythm, and the lines tend to have two 'feet', meaning that you can scan the poem as dactylic dimeter but the lines are irregular in length, pattern and weight. You can feel this by counting syllables (5, 5, 5, 5, 6, 4, 6, 4) or, more obviously, by counting stressed syllables: 'When we two parted | In silence and tears | Halfbroken-hearted | To sever for years'.
This broken pattern gives the poem a stilted, stop-start, uncomfortable rhythm that begins to move, then hesitates, then moves on again, just as the poet is struggling to move on from his memories. Short lines are particularly powerful at slowing a reader down: the large amount of white space on a page prompts the reader to be thoughtful.
The rhyme in the lines (a relatively straightforward ABABCDCD scheme) means that the lines end with a particular heaviness or finality, adding to the stiltedness of the thoughts.
Byron uses alliteration and consonance to reinforce key words and images in the reader's mind: he is convinced that he 'shares' in the 'shame' of his lover, who has now lost the respect of his acquaintance.
'shame' is also reinforced by the internal rhyme with 'name', which is then repeated in the next stanza and helps to highlight the 'knell' - the ringing of a bell. This word has a very formal, even funereal connotation, particularly when coupled with the archaic language of 'mine ear' and 'Why wert thou so dear?'
Ironic that her 'name' is now associated with the heavy weight of a metal bell, when it he also says 'light is thy fame'. However, what Byron really means is that his lover's reputation ('fame') is now insignificant or unvalued ('light'). Old-fashioned language like this means that although he uses relatively short and simple vocabulary, his verse has a complexity that intrigues and puzzles his reader: his lover's name is 'light' to him in one way and 'heavy' in another.
A poem like this is more for the writer than for the reader: expressing his 'grief' at the end of the relationship is an important way of coming to terms with what he feels.
This makes this a very cathartic poem. Byron asks himself why he cared for his lover so much ('Why wert thou so dear?'), implying that he has a very different attitude to her now even though he is struggling to change his feelings.
He is also deeply bitter about the breakup, believing that he will continue to 'rue' or regret the relationship for a 'long, long' time. He believes that it was his lover's fault that the relationship ended - that 'thy heart could forget, | Thy spirit deceive' - but we are unable to tell what objectively happened. This doesn't make the poem any less honest, but it is essentially about the poet's feelings about the breakup, not really about the breakup itself.
The poem is also very secretive: Byron addresses his past lover as 'thee', not using a name or giving any details, and explains that none of his friends knew of the relationship ('They knew not I knew thee' and 'In secret we met'). This secrecy has made it hard for him to share his feelings as he is also ashamed of the breakup and his unhappiness. He feels guilty (he says he knew her 'too well') and hasn't forgiven himself or his lover.
Time and Memory
In the second stanza Byron sets the poem in the 'morning' of some day long ago and explains that the 'dew' dampened his head. When he writes 'It felt like the warning | Of what I feel now' he changes the tense of the verb 'felt' to make it 'feel' so that we have a sense of how the emotion has continued in time.
By the end of the poem, When We Two Parted, Byron looks towards the future, but is unsure of what will happen, not writing what 'will' or 'shall' be but what 'should' be 'if' another meeting ever takes place. He asks a rhetorical question which the poet answers with the same words he used to describe the parting 'years' ago: 'With silence and tears'. Clearly, he feels that on their next meeting, he will still be feeling the grief of the end of their relationship.
catharsis The release of pent-up emotion
dactyl A rhythmic pattern of three syllables, the first stressed and the next two unstressed (like Gregory or Colder thy…)
dimeter A line with two stressed syllables (although sometimes more stressed syllable are added!)
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For More GCSE poem analyses similar to Love's Philosophy: The Farmer's Bride, Love's Philosophy, Neutral Tones, Kamikaze, Medusa, and Bayonet Charge.
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June 18th, 1815: Napoleon's war mongering was finally put to an end at the Battle of Waterloo, a field just south of Brussels, Belgium where an alliance of British and Prussian forces tag-teamed up to put the smack down to Napoleon's French army. The defeat of one of European history's most successful conquerors, however, came at a high price: over 50,000 dead, wounded, and missing (French, Prussian, and British). The hero of this allied victory? One Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. And you thought Wellington was just a cool way to eat beef.
After his glorious victory, our man Wellington became The Man across Europe. A notorious womanizer before Waterloo, his military achievements only heightened his appeal to the ladies. In 1816, he was involved in a scandalous affair with the very un-sexily-named Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, who was (gasp!) a married woman at the time. While Wellington may or may not have gone down this sordid road before, Lady Frances certainly had. Not long before her fling with the Duke, she had some type of (perhaps inappropriate) relationship with one of the most (in)famous poets of the day: George Gordon, Lord Byron. Now you see the connection, right?
Scholars think that it was partly due to this tabloid-worthy gossip—the rumored affair between Wellington and Lady Frances—that Byron wrote "When We Two Parted." The "we two" mentioned in the title are, after all, Byron and Lady Frances, who were involved in 1813 (some people refer to their tryst as a "flirtation," whatever that means). According to Byron, he "spared" her, which seems to mean he ended up not consummating his relationship with her. But then again… anything's possible with Lord B.
Reading "When We Two Parted," however, makes us think a little differently. Byron is purposely vague in the poem (no names are used) and his speaker seems not only legitimately upset about the end of his relationship with Lady Frances ("a shudder comes o'er me"), but also guilty of something: "I hear thy name spoken, / And share in its shame." Despite his feelings of sadness and despair—the moment of parting is tearful and a grim foreshadowing of the poet's state as he writes—Byron opted to "spare" Lady Frances again, despite his frustration. Byron deleted the poem's final stanza, which made it clear that Lady Frances was one of the characters, and lied about the date of the poem's composition (he claimed to have written in 1808, the big fibber) in order to distract and confuse any potentially clever literary detectives.
Byron was also a source of gossip, largely because of his many affairs. In this poem, then, we get a sense of the pot calling the kettle black, but also how turnabout is fair play. Need any more clichés? Yeah, we didn't think so. Just dive into the poem to see what Byron was really up to.
"Hey, did you guys hear, the hottest girl in school is dating Arthur?" a kid sitting at your lunch table says one day. "Yeah, I saw them together yesterday," exclaims another. "Yeah, I saw them out last weekend," some other kid adds. Shivers run down your spine. You can feel some tears welling up inside you. Quickly, you pretend you're allergies are acting up so nobody wonders why your eyes are all red. Why are they red anyway? And why are you freaking out?
Well, for starters, HGIS (the hottest girl in school) used to go with you a few months back. It was short-lived, and saying goodbye was really tough. You remember that morning before school when you guys decided to end it (it wasn't exactly up to you). It was chilly, dewy, dark—everything the weather should be when something really sad is happening. Her cheek was cold, and she didn't seem as sad as you. She kissed you one last time, but she kind of phoned that one in. You forgot about her for a while, but ever since she started dating this other dude Arthur, it's been making you feel pretty bad. Even hearing her name is enough to get you down.
The bad news is, you've gone through a breakup and for some reason are still hurting about it. The good news is, even some of the most famous people ever have felt the exact same way. Lord Byron is one, and that's what his poem "When We Two Parted" is mostly about. In a lot of ways, it's not just a breakup poem ("hey, I remember when we said goodbye, it was so awful," the poem partly says) but also a post-breakup poem: "Hey again, I still feel really bad about all this."
Granted, Byron's friendship, or affair, or relationship, or whatever, with Lady Frances (see "In a Nutshell" above) was different than the more normal relationships you've had or will have, the underlying idea is the same. Byron was sad about saying goodbye to Lady Frances, and while he may have forgotten about her for some time, his pain came back in full force once she got involved with another dude. Even the mention of her name was enough to irk him, just like the mention of the hottest girl in school's name irks you: "They name thee before me, / A knell to mine ear; / A shudder comes o'er me— / Why wert thou so dear?" (17-20).
Byron is upset, but he's not upset about being upset, and you shouldn't be either. Wait, explain that one. Okay, it's like this. It's been a while since Byron was involved with Lady F., and you and HGIS haven't been together in some time either, so why is it still upsetting? That's the mystery of human emotion that this poem alludes to, and that you will encounter throughout your life. It's okay to still be upset about something that happened a while ago. It's okay for somebody's name to make you feel funny. Byron realized that, and while he didn't like feeling like that, he was okay with the fact that that's how life is sometimes.