When We Two Parted • George Gordon Lord Byron

Analyzing this poem is a request.

I’ve never been an ardent fan of Byron, even though my great grandfather, one generation removed from the Irish and Scotts, was apparently so moved by poetry and Byron in particular, that he named his son (my grandfather) Byron; and my grandfather, in his turn, named his son (my father) Gordon.

One of the reasons I don’t read more Byron is that I think of him as more of a novelist who happened to be expeditiously good at rhyme and meter, rather than as a poet. That’s absurd, of course, but you will rarely find in Byron the stunning imagery that makes you pause and linger. His imagery is, almost entirely, perfunctory and rudimentary. He uses stock phrases and poeticisms (whatever it takes to keep the narrative moving). You might as well read Jane Eyre if you’re looking for evocative imagery.

What Byron possessed was an unerring sense of phrasing, rhythm and rhyme. He was capable of using phrase and rhyme with a skewering and deadly precision. One never gets the sense that he was at a loss words. He almost never resorts to anything like metrical filler. His lines are (if there was ever a time to use the adjectives) rugged and masculine. There’s no prettiness to his poetry, but the lean, no nonsense, muscularity makes his poetry memorable and powerful. Byron is an object lesson in the sheer power of meter and rhyme, as distinct from the lineated prose of free verse or just plain prose. Great and memorable poetry doesn’t always need the unsurpassed imagery of a Wallace Stevens, Keats or Shakespeare.

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
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
Sunk 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 to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me–
Why wert thou so dear?
They know 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 Scansion: No really, it gets interesting.

The “scansion” that follows departs from my usual method. Rather than use the standard accent marks, I’ve simply bolded the accented syllables. I thought this better represented what Byron was doing. The poem, as a whole, is accentual, meaning that Byron’s primary concern is with the number of accented syllables per line. The number of unaccented syllables varies from stanza to stanza. Interestingly though, if we go stanza by stanza, then one could call Byron’s verse “accentual syllabic”. (Iambic Pentameter is accentual syllabic meter because boththe number of accents and syllables is regular.) With the exception of the last stanza, Bryon maintains a regular number of accented and unaccented syllables.

The way I divided the feet isn’t cast in stone. There are different ways to do it. When I read the poem, I hear anapests, so that’s the way I scanned it. In this sense, the second foot of the first line |we two parted would be an anapestic foot with a feminine ending. The first foot with the word When would be a headless Iambic Foot, meaning that the first unaccented syllable is missing. So, but for two lines, the underlying accentual/syllabic meter of the poem is an Iambic foot followed by an anapestic foot, as follows:

  • The spiral is a high level metrical symbol. I would have to shoot you if I revealed its meaning.

Some of the anapestic feet are followed by an extra unstressed syllable, so I’m calling those feet anapestic feminine endings – something that doesn’t appear in Iambic Pentameter until Robert Frost (anapestic feminine foot in green):

One could | do worse | than be |a swing|er of birches

None of this is information you really need to know, but some of us enjoy these little niceties. There is one line in which knowing the meter helps us know how Byron probably imagined the poem. Knowing that each stanza is internally consistent and that the first stanza maintains two stressed syllables per line and an anapest, we won’t be tempted to read the third line as follows:

Half brok|enhearted

Or:

Half brok|enhearted

Most modern readers would probably be tempted to read the line in either of these two fashions and move on. The first reading changes the line into an iambic one, with an iambic feminine ending. We can eliminate this reading because it breaks the metrical pattern in the rest of the stanza. The second reading introduces three stressed syllables. We can eliminate that because it breaks the accentual pattern of the stanza. If we honor the pattern set by the rest of the poem, we put the emphasis on half.

Half |broken hearted

This is a very curious emphasis and, if it were to be acted, suggests a wee bit of a sneer. In other words, they weren’t broken-hearted. They were only, half broken-hearted.  As I like to say, a masterfully written metrical poem has two stories to tell – two tales: one in its words; the other in its meter. In this case, the meter is telling us this isn’t just another poem about heart break. There’s a touch of sarcasm, if not contempt and cynicism, that turns the meaning of the rest of the poem flatly on its head. I’ve seen readings of this poem on Youtube that play it straight, as a kind of self-pitying poem by the rejected lover, but when Byron was self-pitying, it was usually heavily seasoned with self-righteousness. The meter hints at something else. Once we learn some of the history behind the poem, we might find the opposite of what we expected.

So… what’s going on?

I’ve got two sources for the story behind this poem. They don’t agree. Sort of. The first thing to know is that the word scandalous is never far from Byron’s name. In Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them, Ralph L Woods gets right down to business. He writes:

Admittedly Byron was arrogantly seflish and impulsively generous, aware of his rank and quick to abuse its priviledges. He bore the marks of his dissolute, unstable and spenthrift ancestry, and of a mother who alternated between tantrums and penitential calms. Given the restless age in which he lived, it is not suprising that the brilliant, undisciplined and strikingly handsome poet  with a clubfoot had numerous amours, some of the backstairs kind. [Famous Poems and the Little Known Stories Behind Them p. 21]

By backstairs, Woods is presumably referring to Byron’s alleged affair with his sister. According to Woods, the poem is about Lady Frances Annesley, the wife of James Wedderburn Webster. When Byron first met the newly wedded couple, he remarked that Lady Frances “is very pretty” but that she was already treating her husband with “conjugal contempt” and predicted she would betray him within three years. Woods goes on to write that Byron visited the couple two years later and wrote, initially at least, that he “behaved very well”. Later, though, when writing Lady Melbourne, he confessed that “I have made love [flirted amorously], and it is returned”. The expression “making love” didn’t mean sexual intercourse until early in the 20th century. Before then, it essentially meant flirtation and courtship. Byron also wrote that “he spared her.” “Poor thing–she is either the most artful of artless of her age I ever encountered.” Woods writes that Byron lost interest but that when, several years later, he heard of her affair with the Duke of Wellington, he recalled his former emotions in the, as Woods puts it, “tender yet cynical” poem When We Two Parted.

In another book, though, Byron and the Websters: The Letters and Entangled Lives of the Poet, Sir James Webster and Lady Frances Webster, John Stewart tells a fuller and slightly different story. He begins by quoting a letter Byron wrote on June 10, 1823:

As to yr. chevalier W Wne *** to be sure I learnt from himself all about his [?] surprise — but there is some little doubt of his accuracy. — At least it is very strange that he could never prove so public a voyage of discovery. — She– poor thing — has made a sad affair of it altogether. — I had the meloncholy task of prophesying as much many many years ago in some lines — of which the three or four stanzas only were printed — and of course without names — or allusions — and with a false date — I send you on the concluding stanza — which never was printed with the others. —

Then – fare thee well — Fanny —
Now doubly undone —
To prove false unto many —
As faithless to One —
Thou art past all recalling
Even would I recall —
For the woman once falling
Forever must fall. —

There’s morality and sintiment [sic] — for you in a [?] — but I was very tender hearted in those days. — If you want to know where the lines to which this stanza belongs –are — they are in I know not what volume — but somewhere (for I have no copy) but they begin with

When we two parted
In silence and tears
&c.&c.&c.

So here is a treasure for you in honour of our relationship — rhymes unpublished — and a secret into the bargain — which you wont keep –.

[Byron and the Websters p. 173]

As you can see, the final stanza, never included with the anthologized poem (and probably for the best) keeps the meter and rhyme of the others. With this scathing final stanza, the cynical emphasis on half-broken hearted begins to make more sense, while the line With silence and tears sounds more sarcastic and a little less tragic. There’s undoubtedly some tenderness in the lines, but also contempt. Stewart closes his brief two pages on Byron’s poem with a letter from Miss Frances Williams Wynn in her Diaries of a Lady of Quality (1864):

In England we are apt to exclaim with Byron, in his suppressed lines

Then, fare thee well, Fanny, thus doubly undone,
Thou frail to the many, and false to one.
Thou art past all recalling, e’en would I recall,
For the woman once fallen for ever must fall.

These lines about which frequent enquiry has been made, were given me by Scrope Davies. They originally formed the conclusion of a copy of verses addressed by Lord Byron to Lady Frances W W to whom he was devotedly attached until she threw him over for the Duke of Wellington, then in the full blaze of his Peninsular glory. ‘Byron,’ said Davies, ‘Came one morning to my lodgings in St James Street, in a towering passion, and standing by the fire, broke out, ‘D— all women, and d— that woman in particular.’ He tore from his watch-ribbon a seal she had given him, and dashed it into the grate. As soon as I left the room, I picked it up, and here it is.’ He showed it to me, and allowed me to take an impression of it, which I have still. It was a large seal, representing a ship in full sail, a star in the distance, with the motto, “Si je la perds, je suis perdu.” Two or three days afterwards his Lordship presented himself again with a copy of verses addressed to his fickle fair one, from which Davies with some difficulty induced him to omit the four concluding lines. [Byron and the Websters p. 174]

So, armed with this information, we can conclude that Byron didn’t write this poem in a fit of self-pitying dejection, but self-pitying rage; about a married woman who dared to dump him, not for her husband, but for another cad and aristocrat who was not Byron! Now that takes a very special kind of delusional self-righteousness. That and the fact that Miss Wynn, a quote-unquote “Lady of Quality”, was busily gossiping about the whole affair tells you just about everything you need to know about the era. If I were to sum up the tone of the poem, it would be the hypocritical rage of righteous self-pity. When Byron writes about “tears”, don’t be fooled. It’s one thing for Byron to gad about, but if a woman falls, she falls forever.

Well, maybe I’ve ruined the poem for some, but somehow I think the squalid truth makes it so much better, keener and cutting. When you see youtube videos characterizing the poem as one of “loss and longing”, you know they’ve missed the point. They haven’t read the poem all that carefully. This is the poem lovers write and read to one another when they should have known better but bear a grudge anyway.

Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame.

For the philandering Byron to write that her “vows are all broken” is the pot calling the kettle black. And what is he crying about?  — Her? — Or is it all about him — that he must “share in its shame”?

They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well: —
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

Does he rue because he longs for her? — because of his loss? — or does he rue that he met her in the first place, and now shares in her shame?

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.

These last lines, and a line like Thy spirit deceive, are written in anger, not sorrow. The cutting rhymes and driving anapestic meter add to the poem’s succinctness, momentum and memorability in a way that free verse just can’t match, and in way that Byron mastered. (The line Long, long shall I rue thee is a master stroke of metrical gamesmanship. If not for the meter, we might be tempted to read the line Long, long shall I rue thee , but we know that Byron’s means us to only read two strong accents in the  line. Strongly emphasizing the second long, if done right, gives the line a little touch of disdain.) Fortunately, Byron was convinced to leave off the final stanza (the final twist of the knife) and so, to a certain degree, it remains just possible to read the poem as a heartrending expression of loss, longing and sorrow.

Here’s a good video that subtly hints at the petty anger behind the lines:

  • Note: For some reason, there appears to be a WordPress bug that insists on linking to Erlkonig. If you don’t see the right video, click here.

When things turn out badly, after having your affair with another man’s wife or another wife’s man, this is your go to  poem. If you manage to avoid that scandal, then enjoy the poem however you will.

from Up in Vermont on the Last Day of 2011