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When we two parted (Lord Byron)

A beautiful poem by the best poet in Romanticism, Lord Byron, written in 1813. Love, loss and betrayal. Beautifully -no, superbly- read by Hugh Hancock.

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 a 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 knew 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)

This moving poem is by Lord Byron, and as it often happens in poetry (especially traditional poetry) there are a lot of archaisms (old-fashion language from centuries ago). We’ll use the abbreviation (OF) to mark old-fashion language.

Hyperbaton is a figure of speech in which we change the natural word order to create an unusual effect. It is mainly used in poetry. We’ll use the abbreviation (HY) to mark hyperbatons.

In archaic English (back in Shakespeare’s times) the second person singular of the verbs was not YOU, but THOU ( aʊ/, rhyming with MOUTH). Today, this form is only used in poetry, in some British dialects and by the Amish community in the USA (mostly in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana). We also use it in the Bible and in prayers. The regular verb forms used with "thou" end in -ST:
You live here = Thou livest here
You know everything = Thou knowest everything
Do you love me? = Dost thou love me?

other irregular forms:
You are= thou art
You were= thou wert
You will= thou wilt

I will give you= I shall give THEE /ði:/
This is your house= this is THY house (/ðaɪ/)
That house is yours= that house is THINE (/ðaɪn/) (actually, "thine" was commonly used before vowels and "thy" before consonants, much the same as modern use of "a/an").

In old English, THOU was the singular form and YOU was the plural form. Later, it was common (as in other European countries) to use YOU as a formal polite singular to show respect (like "vous" in French and "vos / usted" in Spanish), and finally THOU disappeared and they used YOU for both singular and plural (like "vos" in Argentina).

This poem talks about a love affair that Lord Byron had with a married woman some years before he got married. They loved each other very much, but they knew their love would have to finish, and finally she put an end to their relationship. Sometimes it sounds as if she just broke up, and sometimes it sounds as if she died. It’s a very good example of the literary genre called "Romanticism", which flourished in Europe in the 19th century. This genre was a reaction to the previous era of rationalism, and it brought the exalting of feelings and emotions, defending that human passions were more important than intellect, that it was feelings that made us human, not reason.

Stanza 1

PART= leave each other, separate (usually for a long time or forever)
IN TEARS= crying, weeping
BROKEN-HEARTED= with our hearts broken (in deep pain, suffering a lot)
TO SEVER= to divide by cutting apart (to separate). (pronunciation: it rhymes with "better")
PALE GREW THY CHEEK AND COLD= (HY) your cheeks grew cold and pale (your face became whiter and colder). "To grow" + adjective = to become more like that. But "and cold" may also be part of the next phrase: "and cold, colder thy kiss".
COLDER THY KISS= and your kiss became even colder than your cheek.
FORETOLD= to announce, to be a sign of what was going to happen later.
SORROW= pain, suffering.

Stanza 2

DEW= little water drops formed by condensation of air humidity, often found covering plants early in the morning.
THE DEW OF THE MORNING SUNK= "Sunk" is the past of "to sink"= to move slowly down.
CHILL= cold (used as a noun)
BROW= "forehead": used with this meaning when we are talking about emotions that make us wrinkle our forehead (with anger) or sweat (with fear or pain)
WARNING= a sign of something bad which is going to happen.
VOWS= promises (it rhymes with "cow")
LIGHT IS THY FAME= (HY) your fame is light. This OF expression means here something like "you’re lucky".

Stanza 3

KNELL= the sound of a bell.
MINE EAR= (OF) my ear. In old English the possessive form MY was used before consonants and MINE before vowels (the same way as in modern English we use the article A before consonants and AN before vowels). In modern English MY is the adjective form and MINE the pronoun form.
Old English- my house, mine aunt.
Modern English- this is my house / this house is mine.
A SHUDDER= a convulsion that runs through your body.
O'ER= (OF) over
WERT THOU= (OF) were you.
THEY KNEW NOT= (OF) In old English all verbs can make the negative with NOT, they don’t need DON’T: will/will not, work/work not. We still have some traces of that in modern English, for instance, there is a flower called "forget-me-not", which means "don’t forget me". In King James Bible (the standard version in English, in old fashioned language), one of the last words of Jesus from the cross was: "forgive them Father, for they know not what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Here’s another example from the scene when Noah (the one who built the Ark to save the animals from the Great Deluge or universal flood) sent the dove away but it didn’t return because it found dry land: "And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which RETURNED NOT again unto him any more." (Gen 8:12)
I KNEW THEE= (OF) I knew you.
WHO KNEW THEE TOO WELL= This line explains the identity of the subject THEY in the previous line, so it means: "the people who knew you very well didn’t know I knew you".
SHALL= "Shall" was used for the first person (I, we) and "will" for the rest. In the 20th century WILL started to be used for all persons, and now we don’t use SHALL to express future, only WILL.
RUE= regret
LONG SHALL I RUE THEE= For a long time I’ll regret having loved you, because it was wrong.

Stanza 4

IN SECRET WE MET= (HY) we met secretly.
IN SILENCE I GRIEVE=(HY) I suffer but I don’t say anything.
THY SPIRIT DECEIVE= this sentence is not complete because the poet is not repeating some words he just said before, so if we reconstruct the sentence it would be: "I grieve that thy heart could forget and I grieve that thy spirit could deceive", meaning "I am really sad because your heart forgot me and because your spirit deceived me".
IF I SHOULD MEET THEE= The auxiliary verb SHOULD can be used in a conditional sentence (with IF) to express that the situation described is not probable to happen, e.g: "if you should see my sister, tell her to come" (but I don’t think you will see her)
MEET THEE= (OF) meet you.
HOW SHOULD I GREET THEE?= Now SHOULD is used with its usual function of giving advice. This sentence means "how am I supposed to say hello to you?", "what would be the correct way to greet you?"

WITH SILENCE AND TEARS= the answer to the above question says that if they meet again in the future he must say nothing and pretend he doesn’t know her, but he’ll suffer a lot.

This is the sad story of a man who is double suffering: he suffers because he lost his love, and he suffers because she has forgotten him. So even if she is quite alive, her love for him is truly dead. That's why the image of death is slipped into the poem so many times, and we get the correct idea that the pain of the poet is, in fact, a real mourning. Just the tragic atmosphere Romantic poets seemed to cherish: Love/Death, the most important ideas in Romanticism joined together in this masterpiece.

The first four verses state the subject of the poem: the end of love between a man and a woman.

Line 1: "When we two parted"
The reader knows only with the first line that this is a broken-up story, they are not together. We do not know, as readers, why they are not together, maybe because her death, maybe because her love ended. The two of them, lovers before, now are nothing, only words written in a poem.

Line 2: "In silence and tears"
Why silence? It could be because it is a forbidden love and that is the reason why they have to cry in silence. The word "tears" clarify it was a painful loss, they live in tears.

Line 3: "Half-broken hearted"
The word "half" gets our attention, the heart is only half broken, probably because they both new they were doing the right thing and agreed on the separation, or (we’ll find out later) because his heart was broken but her heart wasn't.

Line 4: "To sever for years"
They will be separated for years, but not forever, so maybe deep in his heart he still thinks there is a possibility of getting together again in the future. But that hope is absent in the rest of the poem (which sounds quite definite about the end of this), so his choice of "for years" instead of "forever" is most probably a poetical need, to make this line rhyme with the previous line 2 "in silence and tears" (tears-years).

Lines 5 and 6: "Pale grew thy cheek and cold, colder thy kiss;"
When they two parted her cheek was pale and cold, but her kisses were much colder. These two lines make us think of her death (typical exaggerations of Romanticism poetry). It could mean that she's dead (because her skin turned pale and her lips cold) or that her kisses were cold because she had no feelings about it. We know that she wasn't dead, but the reader doesn't know that yet. The reader thinks "maybe she turned her love away, or maybe she died"; the first thing is true, but the second option got into our head. That way, the poet can transmit to us his vision of the separation: it was as dramatic as death. He felt exactly the same as when the person you love dies and you lose them forever. That was not what happens, but that's how the poet felt it to happen, and the poem is not about facts, it is about feelings. Now, just with the first 6 lines, we're deep inside the tragic feelings of the poet, and we can read the rest of the information knowing exactly how the poem feels about all that.

Lines 7 and 8: "Truly that hour foretold sorrow to this"
That moment, when they parted and she was so cold, was announcing all the suffering the poet would go through in the future about this love affair.

Lines 9 and 10: "The dew of the morning sunk. Chill on my brow"
"Dew" is a romantic feature, a romantic word, a nature element to express the feelings of the author, like rain (=sadness), but colder and more subtle. What does he want to say in this line? The dew in the morning is cold, and wet, a bit as if it had rained during the night. The rain is an allegory of crying, so it means sadness, depressions; the dew is like the feeling we have after crying, less intense but more durable: it gives the idea of melancholy, loneliness.

Lines 11 and 12: "It felt like a warning, of what I feel now"
That pain and loneliness he felt at that moment was an announcement of how he would feel in the future: sad and lonely.

Lines 13 and 14: "Thy vows are all broken, And light is thy fame;"
She was married, broken vows refer to broken promises. When you marry somebody you must be faithful, and she broke her promise having an affair with Byron. But he might also refer to the vows she made to himself: she promised him love but now she changed her mind and decided to abandon him and be faithful to her husband, which, of course, is the right thing to do for her, but breaks the poet's heart. Her light fame means "her luckiness": she's lucky because her husband does not know and now she can continue with her marriage as if nothing had happened, whereas Byron, the poet, is left with nothing.

Lines 15 and 16: "I hear thy name spoken, And share in its shame."
His tone is shameful; he feels the pain of their sin when he hears her name. Every time he hears her name, he remembers they had an illicit relationship and feels shameful about it.

Lines 17 and 18: "They name thee before me, A knell to mine ear;"
Her name is a knell (a bell ring) like a slow sad bell at a funeral death. Again, Byron speaks of this woman as if she was dead, because that's how he feels about this.

Lines 19 and 20: "A shudder comes o'er me- Why wert thou so dear?"
When he hears her name, when he knows about her, a shudder comes over him (all his body trembles with emotion), but why? What power did she have over him?: he loved her too much, and he regrets that because he's suffering for it (why were you so dear? why did I love you so much?= it's not a question, it's a lament)

Lines 21 and 22: "They know not I knew thee, Who knew the too well;-"
The love was totally secret, not even those who know her well knew about this love.

Lines 23 and 24: "Long, long shall I rue thee, Too deeply to tell."
He is regretful for having met her, and too sad to express it. His feeling of regret is so intense that he can't express it with words (too deeply to tell)

Lines 25, 26, 27 and 28: "In secret we met- In silence I grieve, That thy heart could forget, Thy spirit deceive."
He remembers their hidden love encounters and he feels bad because her heart forgot their short but intense love. He can't say anything about this and he can't tell her about this (because he has no contact with her anymore), so he suffers in silence, he can't talk about it. He suffers because she forgot their love and her spirit deceived him (probably by making him think she would love him forever)

Lines 29, 30, 31 and 32: "If I should meet thee, After long years, How should I greet thee? - With silence and tears."
Byron asks himself how he should greet her if he met her again after all these years, which is very improbable ("if I should meet thee"). The answer is "with silence and tears". He would pretend not to know her (as they always did) but he would silently cry in sorrow. This may be because he can't let people know he knows her, or because he thinks he can't talk to her anymore, so it would be useless trying to speak to her since she would pretend she doesn't know him.

This last line is an echo of line 2, so the end of the story mirrors the beginning of it: "silence and tears", that’s the summary of his life since he lost her, it is now, and it will still be the same in the future if they meet again.

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