When We Two Parted by Lord Byron

Lord George Gordon Byron was well-known in his time and remains well-known today for his work in poetry, through which he was able to express much of the melancholy and inner emotion that was never seen in him, save through the written word. During his lifetime, he was also known for his numerous scandals and debts, and for his own self-imposed exile from his home country. And despite all of this chaotic insanity that followed him around, his poetry paints a very different picture of the man. Poems such as When We Two Parted indicate a different aspect to Byron’s many relationships, and his feelings about them throughout his life.

 

When We Two Parted Analysis

Verse by Verse

When we two parted

In silence and tears,

Half broken-hearted

To sever for years,

Pale grew thy cheek and cold,

Colder thy kiss;

Truly that hour foretold

Sorrow to this.

When We Two Parted is written in rhyming format, typical of much of Byron’s work — ABABCDCD is the structure here that follows throughout the poem. His choice of words throughout are evocative of sadness — the “silence and tears” imagery, as well as making more of the paleness and coldness of the lover’s face. The idea that the parting of the two left the narrator “half broken-hearted” is another deeply saddening idea, followed by the point that the fullness of separation is a severance that takes and lasts for years.

In the second half of the verse, an element of fate is entwined within the poem; the narrator remembers a time when the two kissed, and the kiss was cold, devoid of emotion, and realizes that the parting of the two was always inevitable; that the moment the warmth left the relationship, the separation and sorrow had been foretold.

The dew of the morning

Sunk 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.

The second verse carries on much like the first, maintaining the sobriety of the poem, and continuing the theme of looking back and thinking about the many warning signs throughout the relationship that suggested the parting was doomed to happen one way or the other. Saying “the vows are all broken” could be a reference to the promises a typical couple makes to each other, or it could be a more literal vow, a saddening realization that a marriage has ended. The second half of the verse further suggests that some kind of infidelity may have been the final break in the relationship; suggesting that there is a shame in the name of the other person, as well as the idea of breaking a marital vow could be a reference to a scandal that involved an affair.

They name thee before me,

A knell to mine ear;

A shudder comes o’er me–

Why wert thou so dear?

They know not I knew thee,

Who knew thee so well–

Long, long I shall rue thee,

Too deeply to tell.

Continuing on a theme introduced in the last verse — “light is thy fame” — the narrator finds himself discussing the apparently publicized figure they’ve recently split up with. The narrator finds they lover’s name to be a “knell” in their ear, referencing the solemn toll of a funeral bell. The line “why wert you so dear?” is a powerful one; despite the scandal and the evident betrayal, the narrator still shudders to hear the name of their lover, and realizes that their pain is going to last for a very long time, and such pain is inexplicably deep; they won’t be able to talk about it, nor will they be able to move on.

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 words of this verse largely speak for themselves, carrying the sorrowful theme of the poem to its close by repeating the earlier theme of silence and tears. We learn that the lovers met in secret and so the narrator must grieve alone, feeling as though they have been forgotten and betrayed by their former lover. They realize that if they were to meet their lover again, there would be nothing to say, and nothing to do except to cry, and that would be all there could ever again be.

 

Historical Analysis

When We Two Parted was written by Lord Byron in 1817, a year after the separation between himself and his wife, and also in the first year of his self-imposed exile from England, where his wife, daughter, lovers, and half-sister lived. If When We Two Parted was written about a particular person from Byron’s life, it makes sense to think that it would have been written about his wife, Lady Anne Isabella Noel Byron, or his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, both of whom he left behind when he left the country, never to return. Popular belief at the time held that Byron had been involved in a sexual relationship with Augusta, and this may have been the case (Byron would later write to a confidant after meeting Leigh’s fourth child, expressing his joy that the child was not deformed in any way, as was believed to be typical of children born out of incestuous union).

By 1817, Byron had given up all hopes of saving his marriage, writing in a letter to Augusta that he was no longer willing to try, saying that Lady Byron was a fool, and that while he did not hate her, that was all he wished to say. By all accounts, Lord Byron treated his wife very poorly during the year they were married, and so this could be viewed as a poem of regret. When the narrator asks “why wert you so dear?”, this could be Lord Byron realizing too late that his marriage meant more to him than he had believed while he had it. His desire in 1817 to never see his wife again resonates with the theme of “silence and tears,” and his wife was also caught up in the scandals that surrounded her husband, which makes sense of the line “I hear thy name spoken / And share in its shame.”

It seems less likely that this poem may have been written about Augusta Byron, who later married and became Augusta Leigh, but it is possible; if Byron did indeed have a sexual relationship with Augusta, then this poem could be about the betrayal he felt after she married another man. This seems unlikely, however, as Byron continued to correspond with Augusta for years after this poem was written.

The exact meaning of the poem is unknown, but given Lord Byron’s long history of affairs, scandals, and the unfortunate end to his marriage, it is unsurprising to think that he had dealt with regret, sorrow, and heartbreak a number of times in his life. To leave everything behind in England as he did would also have undoubtedly been extremely difficult. When We Two Parted is a powerful and beautiful example of the regret that he had felt during this difficult time in his life.

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Related poetry:   Fare Thee Well by Lord Byron

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3 Comments

  1. Andrew reason December 9, 2016
  2. Secret love May 21, 2018
    • mm Lee-James Bovey May 21, 2018

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