Summary and Analysis

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1125 words.)

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