Friday, January 25, 2008

When We Two Parted -- a Poetry Friday post

First the poem, then the discussion. Or really, if you have time, first the poem. Then a a few moments to think/grieve, and then the discussion. You'll understand that better in a moment, unless this is one you already know by heart.

When We Two Parted
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

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.

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 to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear?
They know 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.

Go on. Pause for a moment. I'll wait.

Let's get the technical stuff out of the way: four stanzas, eight lines each, with an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme (the third stanza can also be read as ABABACAC). There's no strict syllable count per line; instead there are two strongly-accented syllables per line (E.g., "WHEN we two PARTed" or "they KNOW not i KNEW thee").

The power of this poem comes from multiple sources. Part of it is the punch-iness of the lines with their two accented syllables each. They rock you along through the poem, and yet they sometimes pack a wallop as they go. Part of the poem's power is Byron's use of the first person. It lends credibility to the words of the poem, which is highly personal not just because of the use of first person, but also because of the grief, anger, despair and resentment in the words of the poem.

And a large part of this poem's power is that ends on a sadder note than it began. Contrary to common belief, time has not healed the speaker's wound. In the first stanza, he's been rejected by a lover; the lover went on to a life of infamy, and his knowledge that he was once associated with the lover is a constant source of shame; while the lover's name is bandied about (one infers with some derision), the speaker reassesses the level of his affection ("Why wert thou so dear?"), and it seems that he harbored feelings over the years; and then the final stanza, which is killer, as he reflects on their past trysts and his continued resentment over what he now views as a betrayal, and considers the possibility of meeting her again.

I should note that this poem is often read as meaning that a prior secret lover has made a public fool of him- or herself, and is now being gossiped about in society. Friends discuss it openly in front of the speaker, not knowing of his past relationship, and it reopens all the wounds of the original separation. I should also note that I read this poem slightly differently, based on all the verbal cues that have to do with death, as meaning that the ex-lover is now dead, and is nevertheless the object of society's ridicule as a result of a misspent life, and that the far-distant future meeting is in the afterlife. It's supportable on the face of the poem, but isn't, I believe, the traditional take on it. And that's the beauty of poems— they are subject to individual interpretation.

If you're interested in more about Byron's biography, you can get some of the dirt in a prior post of mine. He was actually quite a scandalous figure in his day, and in honesty, this poem could as easily have been written about him as by him.


Ruth said...

I heard this one read on the Classic Poetry Aloud podcast recently. Thanks for your great analysis.

Thanks for visiting my blog, too, and leaving a comment there. If only, indeed.

violetta said...

hey there
thanx for ur gr8 intepretation of this poem it has helped me gain another point of view of it
i am currently studying 2 text with 1 theme and i have chosen lord byron's when we two parted as one of my text now trying 2 find a movie or something 2 relate 2 it is the problem lol any suggestions???
sydney australia

violetta said...

hey there
just wanted to say thanx for ur gr8 interpretation of this poem.
i am currently studying 2 text with 1 theme and have decided on lord byron's "when we two parted"
it has given me another view on this piece now trying 2 find a movie in 2days society 2 relate to it is the problem lol any suggestions??
sydney australia

Kelly Fineman said...


Thanks for commenting. Finding a pairing for this situation might be a bit hard if you're looking for the exact story, but Dangerous Liaisons/Cruel Intentions might do for a movie reference, both of which are based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a French novel from the 18th century.

You may also want to consider whether a different poem or story captures the same mood, or uses a similar story but with a different conclusion.

Best of luck.

curiously cheezy said...

thanks for the excellent efficient and technical analysis! i think im going to be a regular visitor on fridays :)

Anonymous said...

Byron was bisexual and many of his poems were ambiguous. when he wrote a poem about another man he signed it George Gordon his first two names. Other poems are signed Lord Byron. In his time homosexuality was a capitol offence. That is why he spent much of his time out of England. The anguish this caused contributed to the pain and suffering he must have gone through with his affairs.

AFL said...

Everytime I read a composition exerted from the mind and soul of this man - I find my self desiring to unearth him and make sweet, sweet love to his corpse.

Luckily my urges pass rather quickly due to my small attention span. Otherwise, I'd have some... Problems.

Great analysis - it solidified some of my opinions as well as refuted a few inaccurate interpretations.

Kelly Fineman said...

AFL: Thank heavens the urge passes. His bones would, I'm certain, no longer be up to that level of exertion by now in any case! (*giggles*)

NANCY said...


Kelly Fineman said...

Nancy: I'm glad to have been of help!