When We Two Parted Questions and Answers
by Lord George Gordon Byron

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How does the poem "When We Two Parted" build up a romantic atmosphere?  

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Lord Byron's poem "When We Two Parted" is a first-person monologue spoken to the narrator's lover. The title of the poem, "When We Two Parted," suggests before even reading the poem that the subject matter will be love, or more accurately the separation of lovers. The poem is written in rhymed meter that follows an alternating syllable count by line from six to five. This adds to the romantic atmosphere of the poem by making the reading sound like a fluid song of longing and care. Byron builds the romantic atmosphere of the poem by presenting the narrative of the two...

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Lord Byron’s poem “When We Two Parted” is a romantic lament for a lost lover.  Written as a first-person monologue, the poem is divided into four stanzas that build upon each other, culminating in a final expression of sorrow for the death of the relationship.  Although the poem is pervaded with a sense of emptiness, as conveyed through the repetitive diction of “silence,” “broken,” and “cold,” the structure and imagery of the poem creates a sentimental atmosphere that clings to love as opposed to denouncing it.     

The poem contains four stanzas made up of two quatrains with a regular rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD. There is a certain musicality achieved by the rhyme scheme and the carefully placed metrical stresses (When we two parted) that softens the anger and despair of the persona.  Similarly, the repetition of key words imply the poem is the first instance of the persona’s love being vocalized.  For example, “silence” is repeated three times and twice in conjunction with the word “tears,” suggesting the persona kept all of his feelings, and anything else that dealt with the affair, quiet.  The word “cold,” or imagery associated with it, is also repeated throughout the poem: 

                                Pale grew thy cheek and cold,

                                Colder thy kiss;

                                Truly that hour foretold

                                Sorrow to this.

                                The dew of the morning

                                Sunk chill on my brow

                                I felt like the warning

                                Of what I feel now.

While this diction conveys a loss of emotion and even death, each mention of “cold” or “chill” is linked to a facial feature (“cheek,” “kiss,” “brow”) that fills the verses with a longing for the warmth of intimacy.   Further, the fragmentation of facial imagery serves as the persona’s final attempt to remember the physical beauty of his lost lover and suggests the two lovers are incomplete without each other.

Where the first stanza describes the fleeting moments of the lovers’ last embrace, the second stanza recounts the separation, which occurs in the morning.  It is interesting to note the use of morning imagery because traditionally in literature the morning is seen as a symbol of rebirth and optimism.  Therefore, the persona holds on to the memory of his lady’s warmth despite feeling “broken” and “shame.” This again contributes to the romanticism of the poem because it emphasizes the intensity of the love the persona still harbors for his unnamed lady.    

The third stanza describes the scandal surrounding the affair between the two lovers.  People are gossiping about the “lady,” and each time her name is brought up, the persona hears a knell, which is similar to a death toll: “They name thee before me, / A knell to mine ear; / A shudder comes o’er me—.” The third stanza is perhaps the most dismal of the verses, as the persona now perceives the lady as a death omen, but a reading of the fourth stanza suggests this ominous feeling is due to the fact that all of their emotions and encounters were kept in silence. 

The fourth stanza begins with silence (“In secret we met-- / In silence I grieve”) and ends with silence (“How should I greet thee?-- / With silence and tears.”) The mirrored images emphasize the suppression of emotion that the persona has had to keep in the past and will have to keep in the future.  He longs to be reunited with his lover, but he knows his love will never be actualized.  Thus, the poem itself is the only outlet the persona has to express his true feelings for his lost lover, transforming the dismal break-up lament into beautifully romantic lyrics.