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First the poem, then the discussion. Or really, if you have time, first the poem. Then a a few moments to think/grieve, and then the discussion. You'll understand that better in a moment, unless this is one you already know by heart.

When We Two Parted
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

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
Sank 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.

Go on. Pause for a moment. I'll wait.

Let's get the technical stuff out of the way: four stanzas, eight lines each, with an ABABCDCD rhyme scheme (the third stanza can also be read as ABABACAC). There's no strict syllable count per line; instead there are two strongly-accented syllables per line (E.g., "WHEN we two PARTed" or "they KNOW not i KNEW thee").

The power of this poem comes from multiple sources. Part of it is the punch-iness of the lines with their two accented syllables each. They rock you along through the poem, and yet they sometimes pack a wallop as they go. Part of the poem's power is Byron's use of the first person. It lends credibility to the words of the poem, which is highly personal not just because of the use of first person, but also because of the grief, anger, despair and resentment in the words of the poem.

And a large part of this poem's power is that ends on a sadder note than it began. Contrary to common belief, time has not healed the speaker's wound. In the first stanza, he's been rejected by a lover; the lover went on to a life of infamy, and his knowledge that he was once associated with the lover is a constant source of shame; while the lover's name is bandied about (one infers with some derision), the speaker reassesses the level of his affection ("Why wert thou so dear?"), and it seems that he harbored feelings over the years; and then the final stanza, which is killer, as he reflects on their past trysts and his continued resentment over what he now views as a betrayal, and considers the possibility of meeting her again.

I should note that this poem is often read as meaning that a prior secret lover has made a public fool of him- or herself, and is now being gossiped about in society. Friends discuss it openly in front of the speaker, not knowing of his past relationship, and it reopens all the wounds of the original separation. I should also note that I read this poem slightly differently, based on all the verbal cues that have to do with death, as meaning that the ex-lover is now dead, and is nevertheless the object of society's ridicule as a result of a misspent life, and that the far-distant future meeting is in the afterlife. It's supportable on the face of the poem, but isn't, I believe, the traditional take on it. And that's the beauty of poems— they are subject to individual interpretation.

If you're interested in more about Byron's biography, you can get some of the dirt in a prior post of mine. He was actually quite a scandalous figure in his day, and in honesty, this poem could as easily have been written about him as by him.

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( 30 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 25th, 2008 03:22 pm (UTC)
Haven't really deciphered or picked apart --other than acknowledging the items you point out....

But as a poem. With a one-through. I like it! I'm a sucker for rhyme and things that flow easily off the tongue...and this fits the bill.
Jan. 25th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC)
It does indeed. If you get a chance to read it aloud, by all means, do it. You'll be hardpressed not to take on a tone associated with negative emotions - sadness, anger, disappointment, etc.
Your advice - slatts - Jan. 25th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - slatts - Jan. 25th, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Jan. 25th, 2008 04:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 25th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
I really like this one and would love to discuss it with you at length over tea, my dear. That would be quite fun!

I read it very much like you did, especially the death\afterlife cues. "Thy vows are all broken" makes me think that she (the one that's now dead) was committing adultery and everyone found out after she died and is talking about it. But no one knows that it was with him.

I could go on! But I will not.

Thank you for reminding me of this one.
Happy Poetry Friday!
Jan. 25th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
It's nice to know I'm not the only person who reads it as a post-mortem, and how his loss is now complete, and he's reminded again of how she jilted him. I also read it that she was in another relationship - NOT with him - that had scandal attached to it. And that hearing of it has brought all his original disappointments back to the surface.

And I would so love to sit down for tea with you, as well.
Jan. 25th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
Long, long shall I rue thee.
Ouch. Knife in heart...
Jan. 25th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC)
That is one of the lines that I love as well. The whole poem really speaks to love lost. When I think about this one, I usually forget all the sordid references in the middle of the poem and think of it in a Romeo/Juliet fashion. And yet, that's completely incorrect.
Jan. 25th, 2008 06:00 pm (UTC)
TadMack says:
Ah. I don't know this one by heart, but I read it frequently because it's just... one of the rare combination of beautiful words describing such a tragic end.
Jan. 25th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says:
I was about to give you credit for use of the word aching, which is what I took from your response, only you didn't say it. It is indeed a beautiful tragedy.
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:16 pm (UTC)
At first reading I thought as you did -- that she had died because of the reference to "pale" and "cold," etc. It's pretty ironic considering Byron's own reputation in real life.
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC)
He was quite a rake.
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
It's a wonder I followed a link to a Lord Byron poem with the promise of "thous." Glad I did though. Poem and discussion was great- I'll second the idea that it's post-mortem.

John Mutford
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Wonders
It's the emotional impact of the poem that keeps it fresh and modern, even with the "thous". And I'm glad you agree with me on the post mortem aspect.
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
and Byron! Thank you for a wonderful and informative session.
Jan. 25th, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC)
Me too. And thank YOU for your kind warods.
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
This is not terribly profound, but may I just say once again: God, I LOVE these poetry lessons!

Jules, 7-Imp
Jan. 25th, 2008 08:01 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome. And thank you for the kind words.
Jan. 25th, 2008 08:44 pm (UTC)
Oh I like that so much!
Jan. 26th, 2008 12:23 am (UTC)
Me too.
Jan. 25th, 2008 10:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you for including a link to your post on Plath's "glimpse through the door".

I too read death into the poem above. So powerful. Loved it.
Jan. 26th, 2008 12:24 am (UTC)
I figured you'd like to see the "other version" of the quote. I'd heard Plath's quoted before I ever found out about the Sandburg -- they even used it in the Plath movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow, I believe, which is what caused me to track it down in the first place.

Thus far, more of us read death than not. I'm glad I'm not alone.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 26th, 2008 02:40 pm (UTC)
My guess is that you've heard it misquoted. The first line is the first line of the stanza, and that last three lines are the last three lines of the stanza - it appears that someone has skipped over the middle part, but without adding an ellipsis to show that there's content missing.
(Deleted comment)
Jan. 28th, 2008 02:16 pm (UTC)
There's no reason not to read it "when WE two PARTed", now that I look at it again. Maybe I should have gone with a different line, come to think of it. Ah well, the principal point (only two stressed syllables) remains the same either way, so at least that works!
( 30 comments — Leave a comment )

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