Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Lord Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’

‘When We Two Parted’ is one of the anthology favourites by a poet better known for his life than for his work. Although the poetry of Lord Byron (1788-1824) is still read and studied, how many people have read Don Juan from start to finish? It’s shorter poems, like the beautiful lyric ‘When We Two Parted’ that keep Byron’s work popular. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s a reminder of the poem.

‘When We Two Parted’ by 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 in mine ear;
A shudder come 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.

When We Two Parted: summary

First, a paraphrase of the meaning of ‘When We Two Parted’, to act as a sort of summary: ‘When you and I bid farewell to each other, unhappy and not speaking to each other any more, your cheek grew cold – but your goodbye kiss to me was colder still. That moment of parting has caused the sorrow that I now feel.’

Then, in the second stanza: ‘Even the morning dew was cold on my forehead, as if foreshadowing the cold and desolate feeling I experience now. You’ve become an outcast from society, and your name is mud; I feel guilty about our affair.’

The third stanza: ‘People gossip about you in front of me, and it’s like a church bell ringing the death knell; I shudder, and wonder why you meant so much to me? These people who mention you don’t know about our affair. I will regret being involved with you more than I can say.’

And the final stanza: ‘We met in secret for our romantic liaisons, and now I grieve over our affair – and our subsequent parting – on my own, not telling anybody. I grieve that you could grow so cold towards me when you once had feelings for me, and that you could lie and deceive me the way you did. If I ever met you again all these years later, I know how I would greet you – the same way we parted, with silence and tears.’

When We Two Parted: analysis

‘When We Two Parted’ is a good example of how paraphrase of poetry can help to identify its meaning, but often at the expense of the language the poet himself uses. Here, the cleverness of ‘When we two parted / In silence and tears’ is that the lovers, because they were involved in an illicit affair with each other, had to meet ‘in silence’: now, when they part in silence, they do so not only because that is how their entire affair has been conducted, but because, we sense, they have nothing to say to each other any more. Their tears are the only language they share now.

Byron was known for his numerous affairs with women, notably the married Lady Caroline Lamb (who famously branded Byron ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’) and (at least according to rumour) his own half-sister, Augusta Leigh. However, the subject and addressee of ‘When We Two Parted’ is almost certainly Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, who is thought to have broken off her flirtation with Byron in order to pursue an affair with the Duke of Wellington, no less (perhaps she had a thing for big noses), around the time that the poem is believed to have been written, 1816.

‘When We Two Parted’ is a typical Romantic poem, reflecting the personal emotions and thoughts of the poet himself and focusing on his own feelings about the end of the affair. It’s a different breed of Romantic poet from Wordsworth frolicking among the daffodils, but is characteristic of Byron’s themes and subject matter, which often focus on human relationships between the sexes.

If you enjoyed this analysis of Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’, you might also enjoy Michael Drayton’s famous poem of farewell.