Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1125
The poem titled “When We Two Parted,” by the British poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), describes the speaker’s growing distance from, and disillusionment with, a person (presumably a woman) whom he once loved. The poem seems to have been inspired by Byron’s own erstwhile affection for Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, who eventually had an affair with the Duke of Wellington and who thus became the subject of unfriendly gossip. Ironically, it is easy to imagine Byron himself as the focus of the kind of gossip to which this poem alludes, and it is also easy to imagine him as the source of a speaker’s disappointment and disillusionment.
Part of the poem’s effectiveness, in fact, is that the attitudes and feelings it expresses seem universal rather than merely private. In other words, the poem deals with a situation and with emotions to which most people can relate. It is a poem about lost love—one of the most archetypal of all topics. The poem is effective whether or not one knows about the autobiographical connection with Lady Webster.
The opening stanza is especially well constructed. Each of the first four lines has five syllables, leading us to expect a continuation of that pattern. However, the pattern suddenly and unpredictably breaks down in line 5, when the speaker abruptly shifts from five syllables to six, so that the crucial word “cold” receives very strong metrical emphasis. The last words in each of the first five lines are all rich with implications, but the last word of the fifth line receives special stress.
The reason(s) for the lovers’ parting is never made explicit, and thus we cannot be sure precisely why the woman’s cheek grew “cold.” Was she upset by the parting, as her tears might suggest? Or had she begun to lose her affection for the speaker? The fact that her kiss became “Colder” (6) suggests as much, but we cannot be entirely sure. The nature of the relationship is as mysterious as the reasons for its ending. Equally ambiguous are the final two lines of stanza one. Do they mean that the hour of separation “foretold” merely the sorrow of the present moment, or do they mean that the hour of parting foretold sorrow during every moment from then until now?
Stanza two begins in an equally intriguing fashion. Is the “morning” mentioned in line 9 the morning of the day they parted, or is it the morning of the present day—the day on which the speaker is speaking? A case can be made for either interpretation, and the latter case is strengthened by the emphasis on the present tense in lines 12-16. In any case, the second stanza is definitely bleaker than the first. In the first stanza, the two lovers were at least together; now they are clearly separated, and apparently they have been for years. In the first stanza, their separation was mostly physical; in the second stanza, their separation is now both physical and emotional, at least on the part of the speaker. He feels betrayed and ashamed—ashamed of her, and also ashamed because of his former relationship with her. Earlier we had been unsure of the reasons for their separation; now it is clear that the speaker considers her fundamentally untrustworthy. In stanza one, the separation might have been imagined as merely temporary; in stanza two, it seems likely never to be repaired. Finally, in stanza one it was the woman who had seemed “cold,” but in stanza two it is the speaker who now seems consumed by feelings of coldness and disaffection.
As in the first stanza, it is partly the precise phrasing of stanza two that helps make the poem effective. The word “sunk” (10), for instance, has a “heavier” sound than the more grammatically correct “sank” would have, and sound effects are also skillfully used in the alliteration of lines 11-12:
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Alliteration is also noticeably present in line 16, where the speaker, referring to the woman’s now-sullied reputation, says that he “share[s] in its shame.” Notice, too, how simple the poem’s sentence structure and vocabulary are, not only in this stanza but also throughout the entire work. It is as if the speaker feels no need to be eloquent or complicated: simple phrasing and short clauses best express his pained, stunned thoughts. He speaks not only about pain but also while in pain.
In the third stanza, the “plot” of the poem becomes even more complex. First the couple painfully separated; then the woman broke her vows and lost her reputation, making the speaker feel ashamed of her; now, in stanza three, it seems at first as if others are apparently trying to provoke his shame by mentioning her name in his immediate presence. Later, this reading seems to be undercut (“They know not I knew thee” ), but for a moment it seems as if he has lost some of his own reputation through his association with the fallen woman. It is as if he has not only lost his connection with her and his own respect for her; perhaps he has also lost the respect of other persons. In any case, he has certainly lost some of his personal self-respect: the speaker goes from questioning the woman’s character to questioning his own, as when he asks, “Why wert thou so dear?” (20). Why and how (in other words) did he at one time allow himself to feel anything for her? At the end of stanza three he declares that his sorrow will be long-lasting. The poem has thus moved from the past, to the present, to contemplation of the future.
Stanza four brings the poem to a conclusion by contributing a sense of symmetry to the work. The poem had opened by discussing how the couple had parted; it closes by revealing how they met. Now the speaker focuses less on the woman’s broken vows than on her active deception. It isn’t clear whether the vow-breaking and deception involve him, her husband, or both, although certainly, if she is engaged in an extramarital affair, her husband has even more reason to feel sorrow than the speaker does. In any case, the closing stanza of the poem explicitly echoes the opening stanza, especially by repeating the phrase “With silence and tears” (32). An echo of the word “years” also links the two stanzas. In the opening stanza, the bond between the man and the woman was stressed; now, however, it is only the man who seems to have any feelings (painful feelings) left for the woman whom he once loved and whom he still cannot put out of his mind.
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