What is the main idea of Lord Byron's poem "When We Two Parted"?

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"When We Two Parted" by Lord George Gordon Byron is a poem which has a very familiar theme: the experience of losing a love.

The speaker of the poem is broken-hearted because he and the woman he loved have parted. In stanza one, he tells us that the two of them parted (or perhaps are parting now)  "in silence and tears," and it seems to be because of something she has done or chosen. At first her cheek grew rather pale and cold, but then her kiss grew cold, as well, causing the speaker to suffer a broken heart. Though we do not know what brought the pair together or what caused the divide between them, we are certain that the love between them grew cold, at least for one of them.

The second stanza of the poem highlights the speaker's suffering after the breakup. Here it becomes clear that the two lovers are no longer together; the "vows are all broken" and what he felt before was just a "warning" (foreshadowing) of what he feels now. Even worse, when he hears this woman's name spoken by others, he feels the shame of what she has done. We do not know exactly what she has done, but in breaking her vows to him she has made herself an object of public shame.

In stanza three, we learn that other people are now, for whatever reason, speaking her name to him:

They name thee before me,

A knell to mine ear;

When they do this, he shudders and wonders how he ever could have been close to such a woman. He not only doubts her character but he questions his own character, as well. 

They know not I knew thee, 

Who knew thee too well--

Long, long shall I rue thee,

Too deeply to tell.

It does not seem that his friends know about his relationship with this woman, suggesting that perhaps there was something clandestine or secretive about their love. In any case, he will regret loving her for many years.

The final stanza finally reveals something about how the lovers met and fell in love:

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.

It seems clear that the woman was married or in some other way unavailable when she and the speaker fell in love, and somehow she has deceived him. He knows that this is not something he will easily recover from or forget, because even many years from now, he knows the only thing he will ever have to give her are "silence and tears."

This idea of being disappointed or heartbroken in love is universal, which makes this two-hundred-year-old poem as applicable today as it was when it was written. People are still disappointed in and hurt by people who claim to love them but then whose love grows cold. The particulars of this lover (that she was not really free to love the speaker, that she deceived him, that her actions caused her to have a questionable reputation in society) may be different for everyone, but the heartbreak he experiences when the relationship dies is universal. 

This is a poem expressing the range of emotions which one experiences when love dies, and the language and imagery reflect that. We hear weeping and silence, we feel cold and colder, we experience waning and shuddering--all recognizable as the sounds and feelings of losing a love. 

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