Not the most challenging poem on the new AQA GCSE English Literature specification, but one worth a little reflection, of course. It’s especially thought-provoking once you really think about it, rather than just glibly saying that it’s a poem about being broken-hearted, or a relationship gone bad.
Here’s Amy to get you in the mood.
She can’t say “no regrets” and neither can Byron, it seems.
So… what have we got with When We Two Parted
Like Winter Swans, it’s written from a first-person narrative perspective, and it’s addressed to an unnamed individual. So what’s that about? Is it words he could never say to this person, a kind of confessional? Is it what he would say if he could? He does say that he’d greet her “in silence” so perhaps these are the words he wishes he could say to her. All the same, it feels strangely private and I feel a bit odd reading it – like he’s put all his emotional wounds out on display for me to read. Similar to the Owen Sheers’ poem, it’s a bit unnerving on two levels: firstly in that we’re faced with the rawness of someone’s emotions, which we’re perhaps not so comfortable looking at, and secondly because it feels like we’re a bit of a Poetry Peeping Tom, and it’s always a bit uncomfortable when people are airing their personal stuff in public. All the same, you should ask yourself why he would publish something that is essentially private communication that is quite clearly about someone? Is it just that he happened upon a great emotion and he thought “I could make a great poem out of that?” or is it autobiographical? Do we need to know heartbreak to write about heartbreak?
We’ve also got the use of “thee”, the equivalent of the French “tu”. It’s singular, because it refers to one person. We can use “you” though, if we’re feeling cold. Just look at how Shakespeare brings out Hamlet’s feelings of betrayal when he speaks to his mother using “you” if you don’t believe me. Cold words, Hamlet, cold indeed. Yet here we’ve got Byron using the familiar “thee” which suggests an intimacy and a knowledge, he “knew” her “too well”. So why’s he using it here? To express familiarity? To express that closeness and intimacy? Or to express contempt? It had generally fallen out of use in Southern England by 1650 according to some sources. We don’t see it, for instance, in the characters’ speech or writing in Jane Austen, though we see it in some other texts, especially to represent the speech of provincial characters. So in other words, it’s a choice Byron is making that would have revealed something about their relationship, though it’s still something that we see used in Frankenstein, for instance. It’s not that he’s using it to make it sound old-fashioned, or even that he’s using it inappropriately, more that he’s using it to reveal something about both the intimacy of their relationship and the contempt he has for her.
As to whether it’s an autobiographical poem, I think it’s very angry and bitter, personally, perhaps too angry and bitter not to be autobiographical. It’s the same with Winter Swans in what that reveals. It’s too real a feeling (even if we get the sense that it is a bit contrived as incidents go… do any of us really have those real-life moments where, just as we need a universal reminder of love to bridge the divides in our relationship, we happen upon a break in the clouds and a pair of swans? Or… is it just that the poetically-minded among us have these moments and make connections that other people just don’t go reading as some kind of weird universal symbol of something?)
So… does the form tell us anything particular?
Not really… it’s pretty standard. There are eight lines in each of the four stanzas, and across each pair of lines, there are usually ten or eleven syllables. Written early in the Nineteeth Century, these were the years before poets started really messing around with form for effect other than the occasional odd-bod up to high jinx (that’d be George Herbert) The form doesn’t necessarily lend anything to the tone or the content.
The scansion, on the other hand, well, that’s more interesting. Not very interesting, but more interesting. Most of the poem has a very similar metre (iamb/anapest, or two anapests) but there’s one line where you might want to think about how he stresses one of the words. Quite a few of the words fall on ‘stressed’ syllables. If I pull out some of those words, you’ll see what I mean.
TEARS – YEARS – COLD – COLDer – KISS – TRUly – CHILL – VOWS – LIGHT – SHARE – SHAME
All the little words are the unstressed ones in this case, so he uses the metre to emphasise the most important words. Clever indeed.
And then there is one line where his metre is up for debate – a line that changes the meaning depending on how you read it, or at least indicates different feelings.
When we two parted
in silence and tears,
half broken hearted
to sever for years. The question arises over ‘half’. If you really stress it, it sounds like he’s really cynical about it – that he wasn’t broken-hearted much. Normally, the emphasis would fall on broken, not on half. And the rest of the poem has two stressed syllables per line, plus this line surely must follow line one in terms of where stresses fall, since it’s a symmetrical parallel. If you stress it in this way it makes it sound like half of him wasn’t broken-hearted at all. So if he was only ‘half’ broken, what’s the other half? Glad? Not bothered? Angry? Or does it mean that HE was broken-hearted, but she didn’t care less, so a half of them is broken-hearted?
Many people think the tone of this poem is one of self-pity. This is Byron’s tragic love poem to them. It’s the tears that do it. Tears can be a sign of grief, and he mentions ‘grief’ too – we think he is sad, that he is mourning his relationship. The lexical field certainly is evocative of this: ‘tears… broken hearted… sorrow… grieve…’ We focus on the ‘broken-hearted’ not the ‘half’ or the other emotions, that he ‘rues’ her, that he feels shame when he hears her name spoken. There’s a kind of anger in the question as well, ‘why wert thou so dear?’
He can’t understand now what he ever liked about her.
That reminds me that tears aren’t always about grief, but sometimes anger. Silence can be angry as well. Needless to say, he doesn’t love her any more. If he was really broken hearted, wouldn’t he still love her, regardless? We don’t stop loving someone just because they stop loving us, no matter how they hurt us.
From the first stanza, we pick up clues about this couple and their relationship: they split up badly and they haven’t spoken ‘for years’, that she grew ‘cold’ towards him – so she was the one who ended the relationship. Byron still feels bad about it. It still fills him with ‘sorrow’. Not only did she grow cold towards him, but she broke promises, “vows” – though we could look at the line “thy vows are all broken” and wonder if it means vows in a religious sense, like marriage vows. It leaves us wondering if she was a married woman and she broke her marriage vows with Byron, which would make sense when we learn that they met in secret. I guess she could have been a nun and have made a vow to God, but it doesn’t seem likely. We just get the impression that she was a married woman and their affair was carried out in secret, which is why the poem is perhaps anonymous. Byron’s obviously not the kind of man to name and shame, but at the same time, it feels like he wants her to know how angry he is at her. We also get the impression that she is somewhat notorious, given her “fame” and the fact that he hears her name mentioned and he feels ashamed. Every time he hears her name, it makes him “shudder”. It’s either a bit ironic that he says, “Long, long shall I rue thee/too deeply to tell” (since here he is telling all and sundry just how much he regrets being with her) or this poem is just the tip of the iceberg concerning his feelings, and even though he is tellings us what he feels about her, these words cannot convey the depth of his emotion. When he says he will “rue” her, it has two senses, which adds to the complexity of the poem: it can mean grieve or feel sorrow over, but it can also mean regret. Again, this deliberately ambiguous choice of words leaves us wondering if he regrets having ever met her, or he’s just heart-broken.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it is heart-break and grief. Indeed, he says he “grieve[s]” in the final stanza. But what he actually says in the final stanza is that he grieves “that [her] heart could forget” and her “spirit deceive”, what he’s feeling great sorrow over is the fact she’s forgotten him, that she’s deceived him. When it’s used with an object, this verb “grieve” means that something causes him to feel grief, and what causes that grief is how transient her feelings were, how fleeting and how brief, that she has moved on and he has not. In fact, the history of this word “grieve” (some six hundred years before the poem was written, but still…) doesn’t help us with this ambiguity over sorrow or anger, since the word also had a sense of “make angry, enrage”.
It does leave me wondering why he chose such ambiguous words. Surely it cannot be an accident that he’s choosing words that hint at both anger and heart-break? Perhaps then, it is both that he feels. They’re not the only words that leave me wondering at his real sentiments.
We have a strange couple of lines, ‘the dew of the morning/sunk chill on my brow’ which to my mind sounds a bit Romeo-esque. He’s always wandering around moping. How do you even get morning dew on your forehead? It sounds a bit melodramatic if you ask me – unless he’s been lying around in a field. Still, with the ‘cold, colder’ of stanza one and the chill in this line, we’ve got the same frosty, wintery ‘love is dead’ imagery that we get in some bits of Winter Swans.
So although you will find it much less complicated to write about (and please don’t spend an eternity TRYING to write about the form – Byron’s simply not using the form in the same ways we see Heaney and other modern poets in the anthology doing) there is still plenty to write about in terms of the language. There is not much by way of figurative language – you can’t analyse the metaphors and similes as you can with Winter Swans and Follower for instance. What you can write about are what it reveals about Byron’s feelings (or not) and what it reveals about his tone for the subject. His voice, his perspective, the first-person narrative autobiographical tone is kind of nice. You have to remember that Byron was a kind of cult hero, his affairs the talk of the town (and he himself was pretty prolific at letter writing which reveals some pretty salacious tales), so this poem is kind of the equivalent of a celebrity singer’s version of a break-up song. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” for Britney Spears has nothing on this.
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