The first stanza of “When We Two Parted” sets up the parting of the two lovers: for some reason their split was accompanied by “silence and tears” (line 2). Upon parting, the speaker’s beloved became physically cold and pale, a change foreshadowing later sorrow which is taking place as the poet writes.
The second stanza continues the sense of foreboding as the speaker awakes with the morning dew “chill on my brow” (line 10). He believes this chill to have been a “warning / Of what I feel now” (lines 11-12). His beloved has broken all vows (line 13), and the sound of the beloved’s name brings shame to both lover and beloved (lines 15-16).
The name of the beloved carries over into the third stanza as an unknown. An equally unknown “they” speak the beloved’s name, which sounds as a “knell” (line 18) in the speaker’s ear. He shudders and wonders why the beloved was so dear (either to him or to others). He compares his love to those others’ concern; they do not know of the speaker’s intimate knowledge of the one they name so casually (lines 21-23). The speaker concludes that he shall mourn the beloved’s loss “Too deeply to tell” (line 24).
In the fourth stanza, the speaker reflects upon his relationship with the beloved. They met “in secret” (line 25) and so he must mourn “in silence” (line 26). What he mourns is that the beloved could forget him and be deceitful (lines 27-28). Thus, the speaker concludes that he could not again meet the beloved many years hence without expressing his pain “with silence and tears” (line 32).
“When We Two Parted” is a lyric poem made up of four octets, each with a rhyme scheme ABABCDCD. The concept at the end of each of the first three stanzas is carried over into the first two lines of the following stanza, linking the poem’s content together across the stanza breaks to unify the author’s sense of sorrow at the loss of his beloved.
The poem was first published in 1816, but Byron falsely attributed its writing to 1808 in order to protect the identity of its subject, Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster. Many scholars believe the poem to have actually been written in 1816, when Lady Frances was linked to the Duke of Wellington in a scandalous relationship. The poem is highly autobiographical in that it recounts Byron’s emotional state following the end of his secret affair with Lady Frances and his frustration at her unfaithfulness to him with the Duke. If we did not know this, however, the poem would be mysteriously vague, since the sex of neither the lover nor the beloved is revealed, and the poem provides virtually no clue regarding the time, place, or other setting of the poem beyond its being a place with morning dew (and the fact that the poem is written in an older English with the use of “thy”).
The poem begins with the bleak tone of despair which will characterize the entire work. Immediately the reader is introduced to the speaker’s “silence and tears” (line 2) upon the breakup. Her own reaction is to grow cold—the physical description of her cheek as “cold” and “pale” hints at sickness, but her “colder” kiss (line 6) implies an emotional detachment growing from the very moment of their parting, which Byron finds unbearable. He sees her immediate response and his own emotional reaction at the time as a portent of the future (the present of the poem) as “that hour foretold / Sorrow,” which would reach from the past to today.
The imagery of coldness carries over from the end of the first stanza into the beginning of the second stanza with the chilly dew upon Byron’s brow, suggesting his own emotional detachment, but also calling to mind the cold sweat from which one might wake after a particularly harrowing nightmare. He awakens into a world still as desolate as the one he ended the previous night. He thus turns his attention to his beloved’s apparent infidelity to him. Her “vows are all broken” (line 13), implying she had made some promises to Byron despite the clandestine and illicit nature of their affair, and further suggesting Lady Frances’ scandalous relationship. The speaker notes that her fame is now “light”—without weight or guilt and easily blown about—yet there should be shame in the speaking of her name because of him, which he at least will feel for them both (lines 14-16).
The beloved’s tarnished name carries over into the third stanza, as Byron compares hearing her name spoken by outsiders to the “knell” of a heavy bell—like a church bell tolling a funeral. He shudders when he hears her name, indicating that he cannot shake the power of their relationship. Now that she is publicly scandalized, those who gossip about Lady Frances do not know her the way Byron knows her—all “too well” (line 22). Now his pain turns to “rue” or even bitterness as he regrets his relationship, especially because of the pain it brings him. Although he is writing a poem about his suffering, he claims the hurt is still too deep to speak of (line 24)—using the poetic convention of having emotions too deep for words even while he tries to write.
The unspeakable nature of Byron’s pain recurs in the beginning of the final stanza, as he reflects that the secret nature of their affair leaves unable to tell of their affair for a second reason: he is unable to mourn publicly for her or her unfaithfulness to him since their romantic relationship had been a secret. He grieves silently over her neglectful heart and deceitful spirit (lines 26-28).
He ends the poem predicting his reaction at some future meeting years later: how would he greet her? Again there would be silence, but also sadness: “silence and tears” (line 32). His pain will not diminish, nor his sense of being wronged by her actions, even after many years. Nonetheless, he will maintain silence forever to prevent further scandal being attached to her name. After all, he does an excellent job of hiding her identity in this poem. (Byron’s contemporaries might have been able to make a guess, but Byron had so many liaisons, who could know?)
The repetition of “silence and tears” at the beginning and end of the poem denotes the poet’s inability to leave his moment of pain behind. He is trapped in a state of grieving a lost love. It is all the more hurtful that he lost her to another man, and all he can offer her is that he will protect her identity by grieving alone.