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 | Half broken-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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