Lord Byron’s poem expresses a secret romance, and sorrow at the loss of a relationship. The speaker reveals only being able to grieve alone since the love was not reciprocated. Because of this, some believe that the poem was inspired by Byron’s affair with Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster.
At the opening of the poem, the speaker tells us that they are upset, having separated from a lover. The speaker describes the impact of the parting like a death and then goes on to reveal that the romance was a secret, so his friends do not know the grief he is enduring.
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
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 in 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—Lord Byron (1816)
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.
Lord Byron was notorious for his public scandals and was considered somewhat of a ‘celebrity’ at the time. He belonged to the Romantic era, a period when poets often wrote about nature and passion. It is rumoured that one of Byron’s scandals involved an illegitimate child being produced from a relationship he had with his half-sister. Following this, Byron married a woman called Annabella Milbanke. However, the marriage was short-lived, with Byron returning to his affairs and grappling with gambling debts.
Byron eventually moved to Geneva, where he spent time with the Shelleys (Mary – who wrote Frankenstein – and Percy Shelley) and Mary’s half-sister, Clairmont. Byron fathered a child with Clairmont, then travelled around Europe. Eventually, he died of a fever in what is now Greece.
Due to Byron’s influence, the concept of a ‘Byronic hero’ emerged. We use this term in literature to describe someone rejected by conventional societal norms and behaviour. A Byronic hero may be sexually attractive, self-destructive, an outsider, and someone who rejects authority.
The poem is written from a first-person perspective and includes the collective pronoun “we” in the title and the opening line “when we two parted”. This immediately indicates to readers that this is a poem about a separation between two people and that there is sadness ahead. The force of separation seems to be expressed by the speaker explaining that his heart feels like it has been severed [“sever”], which is a verb expressing extreme emotion. The speaker observes that his lover’s demeanor changed, noting that she became “cold”
In the second stanza, more cold imagery is used – this time employing nature to foreshadow the speaker’s tears with Byron writing:
“The dew of the morning
Sank chill on my brow’”
The speaker plainly tells us of the marriage breakdown with “Thy vows are all broken”, and blame is further given to the other person when the speaker says:
“I hear thy name spoken,
And share in its shame”
The use of sibilance (repeated soft ‘s’ sounds) emphasises the public shame and makes the speaker sound bitter and upset.
In the third stanza, the speaker continues to reflect on the partner’s name, describing it as a “knell in mine ear”, which is an allusion to a funeral bell. Death imagery is further developed when the speaker describes feeling a “shudder” – as if the ghostly past of the relationship still haunts him. The poem feels like an internal monologue where the speaker is questioning the validity of the relationship.
The fourth stanza finally reveals that the relationship was a secret:
“In secret we met—
In silence I grieve”
The sibilance (repeated soft ‘s’ sounds) emphasises the softness and perhaps the whisper-like quality of the words. This can be associated with the poem’s themes of secrecy and silent grief.
The subjunctive “if” is used towards the end, showing that the speaker still has some hope of a future:
“If I should meet thee
After long years…”
Past tense “met” in the poem represents the loss of what used to happen, and the poem closes with the speaker questioning how they would meet the lover again: “How should I greet thee?—” However, the speaker answers their own interrogative (question) with the final line: “With silence and tears.” The full stop represents the finality of the emotion and the end of the relationship.
The poem uses a cyclical structure, meaning it ends in a similar way to the start. The line “in silence and in tears” is repeated at the opening and close of the poem, showing readers that the speaker continually feels this way and hasn’t yet escaped those feelings.
There are four stanzas in the poem, and each stanza contains short lines. It’s as if the speaker doesn’t have the energy or enthusiasm to discuss their feelings at length; they feel numbness and despair.
The poem uses a type of verse called accentual verse or stressed verse, where there are a fixed number of ‘stressed beats’ per line. In When We Two Parted, Byron uses two stresses per line. For example, let’s look at the first eight lines:
1. When we two parted
2. In silence and tears
3. Half broken-hearted
4. To sever for years
5. Pale grew thy cheek and cold
6. Colder thy kiss
7. Truly that hour foretold
8. Sorrow to this
From the stressed syllables (in bold) and unstressed syllables, we can deduce the following:
In lines 1 to 8, two lines (lines 5 and 7) deviate from the pattern, carrying an extra stressed syllable. Why did Byron make this deviation? These lines touch on emotionally charged moments:
By introducing an additional stressed beat, Byron emphasises the profound impact of these moments. It adds depth to the speaker’s trauma and gives the prophecy a more sinister tone.
The full rhyme scheme, ABABCDCD, also adds to the tight-knit sound of the poem, supporting the repetitive longing of the speaker’s feelings.