When We Two Parted
When We Two Parted
LORD GEORGE GORDON BYRON
Lord George Gordon Byron's "When We Two Parted" is a short lyric poem written in the middle phase of Byron's poetic career. Like many of his poems, it contains biographical references, which the poet attempts to conceal. A key figure in the Romantic movement (an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosophical, literary, and artistic movement with a variety of interpretations generally focusing on the love of nature, and the importance of individualism, independence, and imagination), Byron is often lauded more for his political satire and his longer narrative poems and plays than for poems such as "When We Two Parted." Indeed, his short lyric verses are often either critically ignored or only briefly acknowledged as simplistic and intensely autobiographical. Originally published in 1816 in Poems, 1816 by John Murray (the reprinted volume is available through Woodstock Books, 1990), the poem is falsely attributed by Byron as having been written in 1808. Byron's later correspondence indicates that he made this false attribution in order to protect the name and reputation of the poem's subject, Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster. The poem is available in The Poetical Works of Byron, edited by Robert F. Gleckner, published in 1975, and more recently, in Lord Byron: The Major Works, edited by Jerome J. McGann, and published in 2000.
"When We Two Parted" recounts the narrator's feelings of grief, betrayal, and regret
following the end of a clandestine romantic relationship. The poem exemplifies the typical romantic lyric prevalent at this point in Byron's career in that it is deeply introspective and expresses intense personal feelings. It is rooted in the pathos of human nature, rather than in the poet's experience with Nature. The latter is a common characteristic of the lyrical works of Byron's Romantic contemporaries, and thus the poet's work is somewhat atypical for its time.
Born on January 22, 1788, in London, George Gordon Byron was the son of a Scottish heiress, Catherine Gordon of Gight, and Captain John Byron, also known as "Mad Jack." The Captain was an English fortune hunter who also had a daughter, Augusta, with another woman, and who had before long relieved his wife Catherine of her inheritance. The marriage dissolved not long after the birth of George, for which Captain Byron was not present. In 1789, Mrs. Byron returned to Scotland with her son, residing in Aberdeen. Two years later, Captain Byron died, leaving Mrs. Byron and her young son to manage on an income that was decidedly lower middle class. At the age of six, Byron began attending Aberdeen Grammar School. Several years later, in 1798, Byron and his mother discovered that Byron had inherited the barony, and his family's estates. They subsequently moved to England to their new home at Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham. The estate was in serious disrepair and had to be rented out in order to help pay for renovations, as well as for Byron's education at Harrow; Byron attended the school from 1801 through 1805. He was skilled as an orator, and began writing verse at this time. From Harrow, he went on to Trinity College, in Cambridge, earning a master's degree in 1808.
In addition to the formal education Byron received during these years, he also was sexually initiated by his maid. As a young man he formed strong sexual attractions to both young men and women. He also excelled at going into debt at Cambridge, spending large amounts of money with his friends and going to the theater. In 1806, Byron collected the early writings from his youth into a selection of verses called Fugitive Pieces, which he had privately printed. The following year he revised the anthology and changed the title to Pieces on Various Occasions, also self-published and intended primarily for those individuals who were the subjects of the poems. Byron edited the selection again and toned down the eroticism of the love poems and published a new version of the collection, now titled Hours of Idleness in 1807. The following winter, in February 1808, the collection was derided as self-indulgent and derivative by the Edinburgh Review. Byron answered in 1809 with the scathing satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, which won him favorable critical reviews.
In 1809, Byron and his friend John Hobhouse toured Europe. Byron began writing the first cantos (divisions of long narrative poems) of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage at this time. The narrative verse was destined to be regarded as Byron's best work. He returned to England in 1811. His mother and a close friend died that same year. In 1812, John Murray published the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Byron was suddenly famous; the poem was wildly successful. By the end of 1813, Byron had a series of relationships with various women and had begun corresponding with, and likely having an affair with his half-sister Augusta. He also had a flirtation with Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, during this time; she is the subject of "When We Two Parted." It has been speculated that he wrote the verse in 1813, although it is more widely held that Byron wrote the piece the year it was published, in 1816 (Poems, 1816). Throughout the ensuing months, Byron corresponded with Anne Isabella Milbanke, who had previously rejected an earlier marriage proposal by Byron. In 1814, he proposed again and she accepted. The marriage produced a daughter, Augusta Ada, but ended in 1816 due to Anne Isabella's accusations of Byron's violent outbursts and her suspicions of an incestuous relationship between Byron and his half-sister Augusta. These details were the subject of much gossip and public speculation. Byron left England in 1816, never to return.
Arriving in Geneva, Byron met up with fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Godwin Shelley. The year was a productive one for Byron; he penned the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, "The Prisoner of Chillon," and shorter verses, all of which were published later that year, as was "When We Two Parted." The following year Byron settled in Italy where he continued to write Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Here he also wrote the satirical narrative verse Don Juan. Byron increasingly became involved in Venetian politics and also with the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey. He joined the fight in Greece in 1823. The following year, Byron succumbed to a fever and died in Mesolonghi, Greece, on April 19, 1824.
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold, 5
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow— 10
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, 15
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? 20
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— 25
In silence I grieve
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years, 30
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.
A brief lyric consisting of four short stanzas, "When We Two Parted" is a poem about grief and regret in which the first-person speaker mourns not only the loss of a romantic relationship, but also a loss of innocence. From the present tense, the poem looks back in time, to when the affair was ended. It also predicts the results of a possible future meeting of the two former lovers. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the pain of the ending of the romance. The tone in this stanza and throughout the poem is dark and bleak, with words and images that evoke feelings of depression and emptiness: the woman's pale cheek and cold kiss presage the depression now felt by the speaker.
- The Poetry of Lord Byron is an unabridged audiobook, read by Linus Roache, and was published by HarperCollins AudioBooks in 1997.
In the second stanza, the cold imagery is reinforced with the chilly dew foretelling of the narrator's future feelings of sorrow. Mention is made of the woman's broken promises, and the tarnishing of her reputation. In a letter from 1823, Byron refers to this poem and its relation to his 1813 flirtation with Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster. In 1816, when many scholars believe the poem was written, Lady Frances was scandalously linked with the Duke of Wellington. Byron had written earlier sentimental sonnets to Lady Frances and in "When We Two Parted" he appears pained to hear of her entanglement with the Duke. When he speaks of the vows she has broken it is possible that he is referring either to her wedding vows to her husband that Lady Frances has betrayed with her affair, or alternatively, promises she may have made to Lord Byron. He discusses as well the shame he feels. This could be viewed as an empathetic response to what his former sweetheart is going through. It could also be interpreted as a judgment upon her. The relationship between Lady Frances and Lord Byron was rumored to not have been consummated sexually, and perhaps the poet is, in his way, scolding her for having actually gone through with an adulterous affair.
The third stanza speaks of the secretive nature of the affair, how others did not know of the narrator's relationship with the woman. Again the tone is dark, he hears her name as a "knell," an ominous toll typically associated with death. The speaker reveals the depth of his regret and predicts he is likely to retain such feelings indefinitely. "Why wert thou so dear?", a key line in this stanza, offers the only indication of the nature of the speaker's relationship to the woman. He has not even spoken of loving her; in fact the word love does not appear at all in the poem. But this question "Why wert thou so dear?" is the singular suggestion in the poem of the warm and positive connection the two people had shared.
In the fourth and final stanza, the narrator once again refers to the clandestine nature of the affair and his grief at what he perceives to be the woman's betrayal. The future is once more referred to, with the portent that a future meeting with the woman would bring the speaker to tears, and would result in his continued silence. By this he refers not only to the fact that he no longer communicates with his former lover, but to the fact that he has never discussed their secret relationship and he will continue to keep his silence on the matter. This emphasizes the fact that while she may have defamed herself by being caught in another affair, he at least has handled himself like a gentleman by not revealing the truth about their own relationship with one another. The speaker expresses his grief that his lover has forgotten him, and emphasizing his betrayal with the lines "That thy heart could forget, / Thy spirit deceive." It seems unlikely that Byron is speaking of Lady Frances deceiving her husband. Rather, his betrayal stems from the fact that when Lady Frances did choose to commit adultery it was with another man, the Duke of Wellington, and not with him. The final stanza ends with a reiteration of the "silence and tears" phrase from the first stanza, emphasizing the speaker's sense of being frozen in this moment of betrayal and heartbreak.
In "When We Two Parted," the poet speaks often of his sorrow and pain. He recalls the tears shed when the relationship was severed, of being broken-hearted, of how his sorrow has not abated over the years. The cause of such pain is more than the simple fact of the relationship's termination. Promises have been broken. The speaker may be referring to promises the woman made to him, or perhaps to the fact that she has broken her own marriage vows to her husband when she had an affair with another man, as was the case with Lady Frances. Presumably, the woman is the subject of gossip: the poet speaks of her celebrity in the poem's second stanza ("light is thy fame"). From this we can infer that she is now being discussed lightly, no longer taken seriously. Hearing her name results in the poet's own shame. It is unclear whether he is embarrassed for her, or is himself ashamed for having himself been another man she'd once had a flirtation with. Perhaps more telling of the poet's feeling of betrayal, more than his many mentions of his sorrow, is his statement in the final stanza: "That thy heart could forget / thy spirit deceive." The speaker is positively wounded to have been cast aside, to have his affections replaced by those of another man.
According to biographers and to Byron's 1823 correspondence, he is dismayed at the notion of Lady Frances having become entangled with the Duke of Wellington. She married her husband, Sir James Wedderburn Webster, in 1810, and Byron, a friend of Sir James's, fell in love with Frances in 1813; she was already out of reach, so to speak, although Byron's affairs with apparently unavailable women were numerous. While some biographers have contended that Byron's relationship with Lady Frances was romantic but not physical, his feelings for her were strong enough for him to still feel the pain of betrayal at a married woman's dalliance with another man.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Byron was known for his rebellious spirit and for his liberal politics.He fought on the side of the Greeks during their war for independence from Turkey, which was waged from 1821 through 1832. Why were the Turks invading Greece? Were other nations involved in the war? What could have motivated Byron to become involved in a foreign nation's struggle for sovereignty? Write a report on the Greek War of Independence and include a discussion of Great Britain's role in the war and its resolution.
- "When We Two Parted" centers on the end of a romantic relationship and the far-reaching emotional conflicts that follow. Write a poem about a personal, painful event that has happened in the past; attempt to duplicate the rhythm and rhyme scheme of "When We Two Parted."
- Read Byron's "Fare Thee Well," which he composed in 1816 when his separation from his wife became final. How is this poem similar to "When We Two Parted"? How do the poems differ in tone and sentiment? How do biographical facts inform your reading of the poem? Write an essay on your comparison.
- Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats were all writing Romantic lyrics in the early 1800s. Compare the form, content, and style of "When We Two Parted" with Shelley's "Stanzas" and Keats's "I Cry Your Mercy." Both, like Byron's poem, express longing for a woman's love. How do the modes of expression differ? Which do you prefer and why? Give a class presentation on this topic and a dramatic reading of your favorite of the three poems. Be sure to discuss the reasons for your preference.
Remorse and Regret
The betrayal the speaker feels has lead him to bitterly regret that he had ever had feelings for the woman in the poem. "When We Two Parted" is brimming with notes of despair, sadness, and especially remorse. Almost nothing is said about the woman that would indicate the speaker is glad to have known her and at least to have shared the intimacies that they had. He wonders "Why wert thou so dear?" This question, itself imbued with a sense of regret, provides a tiny glimpse into the terminated relationship, suggesting warmth, and affection. The word "dear" is the only positive notion in a collection of stanzas filled with such negative images as pale cheeks, cold kisses, silence, tears, chilly dew, broken promises, shudders of pain, and long years of regret. Aside from this single reminder of the poet's love, he speaks primarily of his past, present, and future sorrow, and predicts that the regret he feels at having allowed himself to love and be hurt by the woman will only deepen over time. The reader is reminded of this at every turn. In the first stanza, the pain felt at the moment of the break up was a prophesy of the current suffering of the speaker. In the second stanza, the chilly, wet morning served as a warning for what the poet now feels. At the end of the third stanza, the speaker again transitions from past ("They know not I knew thee / Who knew thee too well") to the future ("Long, long shall I rue thee"). The final stanza reiterates the duration of his agony from the past, secret meetings to the current silence in which he grieves, and through to the future: "If I should meet thee / After long years, / How should I greet thee?—/ With silence and tears." The poem repeats the phrase "silence and tears," in the first and last stanzas, emphasizing the progressive accumulation of pain and regret from the termination of the affair through the present and into the future as well. At the same time, the repetition of that phrase encapsulates the entire poem, emphasizing the sense that the speaker is in a way frozen within his own bitter emotions. While his pain has intensified over the years, the fact of the pain itself seems static: he was, is, and will be remorseful.
"When We Two Parted" is written as a short, romantic lyric. Lyrics are designed to be expressions of the poet's thoughts and feelings, rather than a narration of a story, and are typically subjective and meditative. Often, romantic lyrics are written in ballad form, with a rhyme pattern of abcb. Byron however chooses a longer, eight-line stanza, with a correspondingly extended rhyme pattern of ababcdcd, thereby distancing his work from the standard form. The octave, or eight-line stanza, is used often by Lord Byron but with a different rhyme pattern abababcc; this type of octave, written in iambic pentameter, is known as ottava rima, and is often used for narrative verse and for sonnets. The lines in "When We Two Parted" are shorter than in the ottava rima form, consisting primarily of two accented syllables, or metrical feet, per line; this keeps the work a concise, flowing lyric, and at the same time, the use of long stanzas emphasizes the tangled and complicated nature of the emotions the speaker is experiencing.
In this poem, the reader hears the first-person speaker's thoughts as he ruminates over his former romantic entanglement. The grief and regret are feelings the poet speaks of having experienced at the time of the break up, and at the time the poem was written; he projects these feelings into his future as well. The collective weight of these emotions colors the entire poem in dark, foreboding terms. It is tangibly oppressive in its depiction of the effects of lost love on the speaker. Byron's lyrics differ stylistically from those of other Romantic poets, such as William Wordsworth, in that Byron often uses his poetry as a means of coping with emotional difficulties, whereas other Romantic poets frequently discuss, in their lyrics, their relationship with nature, or their place in the universe. Indeed, they often take a more philosophic,
rather than personally emotional stance. In later, longer works, Byron would skillfully combine the personal and the philosophical, as in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Byron was writing during the burgeoning of the Romantic movements in literature, art, and philosophy. The specifics of romanticism differed for each subject area. Romantic poetry generally included a reverence for nature, intimate self-revelations, and expressions of intense personal emotions. Romanticism is also associated with other characteristic traits, including individualism, spontaneity, subjectivity, a freedom from rules, and the elevation of imagination above reason. The Romantic movements were generated to some degree by the social changes taking
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1800s: From 1821 through 1832, Greeks within the Ottoman Empire battle Turkish forces for their independence. Greek rebels declare their independence in 1822. Three separate invasions by the Turks follow; their numbers are reinforced by Egyptian forces. Europe's intervention results in an end to the hostilities. In 1832, at a conference in London, Greece is declared an independent monarchy.
Today: Greece is now a republic that emulates western democracies. They joined NATO in 1952 and the European Union in 1981. Greece is led by Prime Minister Konstandinos Karamanlis.
- 1800s: In 1812 Byron gives a speech to the House of Lords regarding the exploitation of workers in the hosiery trade. Luddism—the destruction of production machinery intended to cheaply manufacture goods and eliminate the need for skilled craftsmen—is a tool that is becoming increasingly popular among workers to draw attention to their cause. It is proposed by conservative nobles that this practice become a capital felony, that is, punishable by death. In his speech, Byron argues vehemently against this proposal.
Today: Britain faces an enormous influx of foreign workers whose rights, like those of native-born citizens, must be protected. The government has expanded programs that allow temporary foreign workers the right to British employment. Many British workers fear losing employment opportunities to foreign workers.
- 1800s: As a handsome, flirtatious nobleman with a successful literary career, Byron is among Britain's first true celebrities. Many of his indiscretions are ignored due to his fame, and they only fuel his intriguing reputation as a rebel. But when his peers and the public perceive that he has gone too far—having had too many well-publicized extramarital affairs, and having pursued a scandalous affair with his half-sister—Byron falls out of public favor. Due to this vehement reaction against him, he is forced to permanently leave the country.
Today: Modern British male celebrities include actors such as Daniel Radcliffe, sports figures such as David Beckham, and royals such as Princes William and Harry. The public's appetite for information on such figures is fed, and fueled by, tabloid magazines reporting on all aspects of celebrities' lives. Modern fans are fickle in their tastes, but often more forgiving than the media when a celebrity fails to live up to the idealized images that fans have created.
- 1800s: Great Britain plays an active role in European politics. British forces fight against, and eventually defeat, the French military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. Following a period of military conservatism, British statesmen approve efforts to aid the Greeks and are instrumental in securing peace in the region. Political power shifts between the Tory and Whig political parties.
Today: Great Britain maintains a strong presence in international politics, but incurs the disdain of many European nations for former Prime Minister Tony Blair's support of American President George W. Bush's invasion of, and sustained military presence in, Iraq.
place in Europe during the late 1700s and the early- to mid-1800s. In particular, the French Revolution, which began in 1789, resulted in the dissolution of class barriers and the destruction of royal power in France. Byron's mother had been a fervent supporter of the French Revolution and Byron inherited his mother's liberal politics. The early British romantic poets, Byron's predecessors and older contemporaries, including William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt, were all sympathetic toward the cause of the French Revolution, but in general, they gradually grew more conservative in their views.
Concurrently, in England, the Industrial Revolution was drastically changing the way goods were produced. Hand made products created by skilled craftsman were replaced by mass produced goods generated by machines in factories. While this did create a working middle class, it also resulted in the exploitation of individuals whose rights were deemed less important than the rapid production of cheap goods for the profit of factory owners. Byron attempted to use his position within the House of Lords to speak out in favor of exploited workers.
Nineteenth-Century British Foreign Policy
As time went on, the moderate revolutionary party in France lost their power to a more extreme radical group, and in 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the French government and established a military dictatorship. He abdicated in 1814, only to gain power again, briefly in 1815, until he was finally defeated later that year by the Duke of Wellington—the same Duke of Wellington with whom Byron's one-time love, Lady Frances, became entangled. From the rubble of the revolution and its aftermath rose, once again, a monarchy. King Louis XVIII of France and his counterparts in Russia, Prussia, and Austria formed an alliance that suppressed liberalism throughout Europe. Byron and his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, among other liberals, who were typically associated with the Whig political party, spoke out strongly against the conservative, or Tory, British statesmen who initially cooperated with these oppressive policies. In Italy, Byron experienced firsthand the injustice of the Austrian rule over Venice; he participated in political resistance against Austrian rule there. By 1822, British foreign policy tended toward more liberal politics and supported, for example, Greece's revolt against Turkey. In the last years of his life, Byron fought on the side of the Greeks in this cause, and lost his life as part of the Greek resistance. Romanticism became associated with the liberal ideal of personal and political freedom largely due to Byron's devotion to the Greek cause.
By the time "When We Two Parted" was published in 1816, Byron's earlier work had been fairly well received by the public and critics alike. He and his poetry had also been bitterly attacked by one journal in particular, the Edinburgh Review. Due to governmental fears of a revolution similar to the one that had been raging in France, a country now lead by the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte, poetry produced in England during this time was expected to be somewhat patriotic. Conservative critics were fierce in their suspicions and attacks on liberal poets. But Byron, despite his own liberal politics, had managed to secure the backing of a conservative publisher, John Murray, and so managed to keep his writing available for public consumption. Following the success of the first cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron's literary reputation suffered due to the scandals regarding his personal life; that is, his separation from his wife and the rumors of an incestuous affair with his half-sister. Critics refused to distinguish between Byron's poetry and his personal affairs and acted on their moral and religious outrage at his behavior by cooling their responses to his poetic efforts. His work, including later cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, came to be viewed as self-indulgent. Other poems from this time period were derided for metrical irregularities and grammatical carelessness. In general, despite some dissenting voices praising Byron's experimentation with form, subject, and genre, his work was not critically reappraised until after his death.
Modern critics have lauded the narrative poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage as Byron's best work, but his lyric poetry is often under-valued, ignored all together, or studied primarily for biographical insights. Discussing romantic lyric poetry in his 1971 Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, M. H. Abrams omits any analysis of Byron's work, stating: "Byron I omit altogether; not because I think him a lesser poet than the others
but because in his greatest work he speaks with an ironic counter-voice and deliberately opens up a satirical perspective on the vatic [prophetic] stance of his Romantic contemporaries." In a 1954 introduction to Byron's poetry, however, A. S. B. Glover remarks that "When We Two Parted" "had all the qualities of his best work" in the lyric form. Glover also observes that the poem "is quite simple both in thought and expression, but beneath the quiet rhythm there is a strong current of feeling." Nevertheless, Byron's biographer Leslie Marchand discusses "When We Two Parted," in a 1957 biography and in a 1965 introduction to Byron's work, but the poem is only discussed in its relation to Byron's private life.
James Soderholm, in a 1994 essay in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, offers an explanation as to why Byron's lyrics in general are largely ignored, arguing that Byron's lyrics do not fit the conventional lyric mode as established by earlier Romantics such as Wordsworth. In particular, Soderholm notes, the confessional tone of Wordsworth's lyrics is characteristically English, while Byron's confessional tone relies more on the French notion of sincerity. English sincerity is predicated only on the speaker not being deceitful, whereas French sincerity involves being truthful "about oneself to oneself and to others." Other critics speak more generally about how Byron's earlier poetry relates to his later writing. Byron's work is often divided into that which he wrote before he left England in 1816, and the poetry he wrote during his self-exile. Because it was published during that first year of exile, during a period of transition, "When We Two Parted" is a poem as much about isolation as the works written following Byron's departure. Yet, some critics reject the notion that there is a clear difference between Byron's earlier and later work. Mark Phillipson, in a 2000 Studies in Romanticism essay challenges critics who suggest that Byron's later work repudiates the poetry from his youth. Phillipson contends that the themes of isolation and self-exile are already present in Byron's poetry before he left England, and that this feature, as well as other stylistic elements present in both early and late poetry, emphasize the continuity of Byron's work.
Dominic is an author and freelance editor. In this essay, Dominic analyzes Byron's Genevra sonnets (which feature Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster as their subject) as a means of accessing and understanding the complex array of emotions present in "When We Two Parted." She asserts that an understanding of these sonnets is essential to a full appreciation of "When We Two Parted."
Byron's "When We Two Parted," is an achingly beautiful poem, at once tender and pessimistic. Like many of his autobiographical lyrics, it is often critically disregarded as a self-indulgent set of stanzas, dashed off as a means of purging despair and disappointment.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, written by Byron over a period of several years and published by the canto from 1812 through 1818, is widely considered to be his best work. The narrative poem is inspired by Byron's travels throughout Europe, and the persona of the narrator is often indistinguishable from Byron himself. It is an emotionally intense quest poem, the object of the quest being a kind of natural spirituality, a sense of moral and intellectual certitude.
- Lord Byron at Harrow School: Speaking Out, Talking Back, Acting Up, Bowing Out (2000), by Paul Elledge, is a book-length biographical account of Byron's years at Harrow. The study offers insights into how the school curriculum and atmosphere helped shaped Byron's poetry and his public persona.
- Byron: A Self-Portrait: Letters and Diaries, 1798-1824 (1990), edited by Peter Quennell, includes a full reprinting of Byron's journals. The book also pieces together a biography of Byron through a selection of his correspondence.
- Prometheus Unbound was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley and published in 1820. Shelley was Byron's friend and traveling companion in Europe, and they had in common the fact that they were both exiled from England due to sexual scandals. Shelley's closet drama (meaning that it was never intended to be performed) concerns the mythical Prometheus and an abstract, idealized notion of revolution.
- The Greek War of Independence: The Struggle for Freedom from Ottoman Oppression and the Birth of the Modern Greek Nation (2003), by David Brewer, focuses on the cause that Lord Byron died for: Greek Independence. Brewer draws analogies between modern political and military conflicts and describes the military campaigns and political factors that shaped the outcome of the war. The book includes an examination of the key role played by England, France, and Russia in forcing the Ottomans to end the war and accept Greek independence.
Byron writes in "Sonnet, to Genevra," and "Sonnet, to the Same," of his feelings for a woman known through Byron's personal correspondence to be Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, the wife of Byron's friend, Sir James Wedderburn Webster. Biographers have suggested that the relationship between Lady Frances and Byron was an infatuation, but was never a physical affair. In his 1965 Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction, Leslie Marchand describes Lady Frances as "the woman who got away or whom [Byron] ‘spared.’" Marchand also observes that in the sonnets Byron composed to Lady Frances, Byron was moved by her innocence. In the first of the sonnets, the poet speaks lovingly of the lady's blue eyes, her fair hair, her soft, serene appearance. He goes on to observe an air of sadness about the woman. The speaker then refers to a painting by Guido Reni, titled "The Penitent Magdalen," and compares the sorrowful, remorseful but lovely subject of the poem, the biblical Mary Magdalen, with his love, the subject of the poem. The poet is quick to assert that she, however, unlike Mary Magdalen, the bible's famous whore, "hast nothing to repent." Emphasizing the woman's unimpeachable virtue, the poet seems to be confirming what biographers suspect: that Byron's relationship with Lady Frances was an intense emotional affair, but one that left her vows to her husband intact.
The second of the sonnets also includes a brief litany of the subject's beautiful physical traits, her lovely complexion, her "deep-blue eyes," her "long dark lashes." Clearly the speaker is completely enamored with the woman in the poem. As in the first sonnet, the poet refers to the woman's sadness, a sense of melancholy about her. Biographers have suggested that Lady Frances's marriage to Sir James was one of convenience, as she sought to escape an unpleasant family situation, while he was eager to marry the daughter of an Earl. Perhaps the sadness the poet observes is the woman's struggle between her sense of duty to her husband and her feelings for the poet. The sonnet ends with the poet expressing his adoration and love for the woman.
The depth of feeling in these sonnets illuminates the pain and regret expressed about the same woman in "When We Two Parted." In that poem, the speaker focuses heavily on his deep, enduring sadness but offers few glimpses into the relationship itself, and what specifically he misses about the woman. The reader knows little about what made the poet love the woman while they were together. After studying the Genevra sonnets, the pain embedded in the question "why wert thou so dear?" in "When We Two Parted" becomes amplified, clarified. Now, the reader has a better understanding of the connection between Byron and Lady Frances. The poet was perpetually moved by her beauty, by her palpable sorrow, by her sweetness and innocence. Knowing the events of 1816, how Lady Frances had a scandalous affair with the war hero, the Duke of Wellington, illuminates the heavy notes of regret in "When We Two Parted." Lady Frances had chosen, after she and Byron had terminated their relationship, to have an affair, finally breaking her marriage vows to Sir James. This perhaps explains the intensity of the poet's sorrow in "When We Two Parted": Byron was not the man Lady Frances chose to have an affair with. Not only did she cast aside her much-admired (in the Genevra sonnets) innocence, but the affair became public knowledge due to the indiscretion of Lady Frances and the Duke of Wellington. "Thy vows are all broken," the poet states in "When We Two Parted," "and light is they fame."
The bitter tone in "When We Two Parted" fittingly underscores Byron's sense of betrayal. He hears the name of the woman he loved and he "share[s] in its shame," feeling perhaps nearly as humiliated as the woman's husband. Marchand, in his 1957 biography of Lord Byron, explains that Byron's publisher, John Murray, wrote to Byron to inform him that Sir Wedderburn Webster had won a libel law suit against a publication which had written of the Lady Frances-Duke of Wellington affair. Given the highly publicized nature of Lady Frances's association with the Duke, the poet recalls his own relationship with an unnamed woman in the Genevra sonnets and in "When We Two Parted," commenting that others knew not of their flirtation; they, at least, had managed to be discreet about their feelings toward one another. He emphasizes more than once the secretive nature of their meetings. With the object of his affection involved with another man, the speaker of "When We Two Parted" wonders that the woman could forget him, and deceive him the way she has. The Genevra sonnets reveal the woman's power and potential to wound the poet; the sonnets explicate the virtues that the poet does not speak of in "When We Two Parted" but that he held dear and regrets the loss of. Byron thought he knew Lady Frances; he perceived her to be virtuous, and innocent. He presumed, perhaps, that his adoration of her was mutual. Yet although the biographical subject of the Genevra poems and "When We Two Parted" is the same woman, she has changed drastically from when the sonnets were written to when Byron penned "When We Two Parted." She has traded her innocence for a reputation as an adulteress; she has transferred her affections from one man to another. It is this transformation that so shocks and dismays the poet of "When We Two Parted."
Byron himself was well-known for his affairs with married women, and once he was married, he certainly participated in his own indiscretions, including scandalous homosexual relationships as well as his affair with his half-sister. It may well be argued that it was unreasonable of Lord Byron to presume that Lady Frances would remain physically faithful to her husband, and emotionally faithful to Byron. Despite the hypocrisy of Byron's apparent expectations, the love he expresses for Lady Frances in the Genevra poems and the pain at having truly lost her—his idealized notion of her—in "When We Two Parted" are conveyed with both insight and sincerity. His pessimism about the future is more easily understood when one has analyzed the poet's feelings toward Lady Frances in the Genevra poems and the sorrow and pain he feels now that she has become involved with someone else. He presumes that a meeting with her again, even after still more time has passed, would only result in more sadness. In a sense, he remains faithful to her. Despite the grief she has caused him, he continues to keep their affair confidential. Indeed, when the poem was published in 1816, shortly after Byron had learned from his publisher about Sir Wedderburn Webster's successful lawsuit, Byron included a false date of 1808, in order to remain true to the secret he and Lady Frances shared. Byron was rumored to often be callous in his treatment of his lovers, but Lady Frances was treated like a lady, at least in this regard.
Source: Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on "When We Two Parted," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
In the following excerpt, Phillipson notes that some critics feel that Byron's later poetry rejects the modes of his earlier works. However, Phillipson feels that Byron's late poems and early poems actually exhibit an underappreciated continuity.
Before he left England in a flurry of scandal, and before he created that most disillusioned of expatriates, Childe Harold, Lord Byron was irresistibly drawn to self-exile. In particular he paid close attention to the example of Shakespeare's misanthropic exile, Timon of Athens. Not only did Byron fashion Harold in the mold of Timon, arranging for his character to escape, like the disillusioned Athenian, from the "heartless parasites of present cheer" (Canto I, line 75); three years before the splashy publication of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Cantos I & II (1812), the young Lord Byron was looking in the mirror and seeing Timon. "Weary of love, of life, devour'd with spleen, / I rest a perfect Timon, not nineteen," Byron wrote in Childish Recollections (1806)—though, perhaps to his credit, he later canceled the line. Thanks to the tumultuous events of his life, Byron, like Timon, indeed became an "archetype of all towering persons whose stature forces a severance from their community." But years before his actual departure from England, Byron's verse followed Shakespeare's king in discovering, within the process of self-exile, displaced relics of the past.
Timon, digging for roots in the woods, instead unearths gold, which he hails ironically as the "visible god, / That solder'st close impossibilities / And mak'st them kiss" (Timon, of Athens IV.iii.391-93). As an improbable reminder of the power and corruption he fled from in Athens, Timon's new gold is a glitteringly paradoxical discovery: a disruptive presence, at once a return of the past and a measure of its displacement. As such, it acts as a ghostly incarnation of Timon's past, a "revenant" as defined by Jacques Derrida in his study of ‘hauntology’; "There is something disappeared, departed in the apparition itself as reapparition of the departed." Byron's verse likewise embraces departure only to be haunted by ghosts, who recall the past even as they embody its disruption.
At the similarly tender age of twenty, in another poem entitled "To a Lady, on being asked my reasons for quitting England in the spring," Byron set the double movement of banishment—its charged, liminal, past-and-present interchange—into the fundamental terms of Genesis: "When man expell'd from Eden's bowers, / A moment linger'd near the gate, / Each scene recall'd the vanish'd hours…" Such lingering would actually last much longer than a minute for Byron; one only has to recall the gate-shadowed action of Cain (1821), taking place in "The land without Paradise, " to realize the constancy of this setting in his canon—after thirteen years still giving rise to "melancholy yearnings o'er the past," (III.i.36) still prompting spectral walk-ons. Cain's lingering by "the inhibited walls" (I.i.80) of Eden attracts Lucifer, the slippery "Master of Spirits," (I.i.98) whose proud alienation ("I dwell apart; but I am great" [I.i.308]) evokes a long line of scowling and once wildly popular Byronic heroes. Such figures, whose impact had faded to cliche long before Cain, nonetheless prove surprisingly trenchant haunters of Byron's later verse, liable at any time to come back from the world of spirits. Selim, doomed hero of The Bride of Abydos (1813), specifically waits to reemerge on the shoreline of his lover's cypress grove: "And there by night, reclin'd, 'tis said, / Is seen a ghastly turban'd head—/ And hence extended by the billow, / "Tis named the ‘Pirate-phantom's pillow’!" (II.725-28).
Even before he was cast aside by his author, left to haunt Byron's later verse as the relic of an abandoned mode, the Byronic hero had been more phantom than man. In the series of narratives often referred to as Byron's Eastern Tales—best-sellers dashed off during his London Years of Fame (1812-1816)—this breed of hero lives and dies amid unsettling recollections of what has vanished; expelled by force or temperament from his homeland, he moves within a purgatory of specters. His world is an uncomfortable blend of spectral disenchantment: Childe Harold's death-in-life Greece ("In all save form alone, how changed!" he observes of a land populated by "Shades of the Helots" (II.711, 726) defines the general climate of the Tales. The Giaour (1813), the first Eastern Tale, is set in the same dead Greece ("'T is Greece, but living Greece no more! / So coldly sweet, so deadly fair, / We start, for soul is wanting there" [91-93]); like Childe Harold, the Giaour wends through this wasteland bereft of love, of soul, constantly nostalgic, and doomed by a curse to origin-haunting displacement ("on earth as Vampire sent, / Thy course shall from its tomb be rent: / Then ghastly haunt thy native place, / And suck the blood of all thy race" [755-58]). Byron's later texts, even as they take sharp turns away from the Eastern Tales in format and tone, build on this early obsession with perpetual dislocation and its attendant hauntings; they teem with corrupted settings and uprooted evocations of a figure who, from the beginning, had been presented to the reader as irretrievably alienated.
As such, Byron's canon, however it may seem to repudiate itself, stays faithful to his early insight that the unsettling passage away from the familiar, from a point of origin, gives rise to uncanny emergence of what has been left behind. Stocking his later texts with references to outmoded protagonists, Byron was not mocking his earlier career, or even ironically "exploit[ing] a winning formula." Instead he was preserving a sense of disrupted origins that, ultimately, drives the vast carnival of displacement comprising Don Juan (1818-24): the open-ended unhousing emblematic of what Edward Said has called "interpretive series." The movement of Byron's career is from vortexes of disenchantment into the paradoxical vision that was already apparent to him as a youth on the brink of Eden's bowers: the improbable rise of close impossibilities. In later texts, Byron's exilic haunting gives rise to double visions important and sustaining enough to exemplify what Michael G. Cooke has called "the force of coincidentia oppositorum, an identification or interpresence between phenomena that seem to deny each other." The awareness of displacement blooms into particularly charged acts of binding in Byron's work as his canon turns back on itself: continual confrontations of the past with what is replacing, even repudiating it.
Paul Elledge has characterized the promiscuity of Beppo (1818)—its digressive presentation of an adulterous affair—as "a strategy by which departure need not entail division, or separation necessarily forfeit attachment."We can push that formula further: Byron's embrace of exile was commitment to a strategy of writing whereby departure multiplies possibilities, division leads to unlikely reemergence. The confrontation of a (nostalgic) present with an (uprooted) past is bristling and unpredictable; the anachronism alone (in Derrida's terms, "a dis-located time of the present … the joining of a radically dis-jointed time, without certain conjunction" is a disruptive challenge to the haunted work. By attuning his later verse to evocations of the Byronic Hero, Byron avidly pursued such disruption—a power beyond control, a roiling adjacency of the past that operates despite and because of banishment.
I emphasize continuity in Byron's poetic career, an essential interactivity between late and early in his canon, in order to counter the standard characterization of Byron's later verse as a revolutionary repudiation of his past work. This late mode of Byron's—sometimes termed the Don Juan "manner" or "effect"—is usually said to be test-driven by the playful Beppo, which anticipates Don Juan's ottava rima form, insouciant narrator, and digressive tendencies. Jerome McGann's commentary to CPW stands as the authoritative characterization of a crucial turn in Byron's poetry:
Beppo is one of the most important poems in the canon because it inaugurates the verse project which was to reach fulfillment in Don Juan. Like the latter, Beppo was written in conscious reaction to the "monotony and mannerism' (BLJ vi.25) of his own earlier Romantic work, and to the ‘wrong revolutionary poetical system—or systems’ of the entire Romantic Movement (BLJ v.265-66).
McGann thus follows a long tradition that reads the conversational, digressive, satirical ottava rima stanzas of Beppo and Don Juan as not only turning the gloomy vortexes of the Eastern Tales inside out, but also signaling Byron's decisive break with his past success. Despite the fact that the writing of Beppo was an extremely brief interlude during the much larger project of finishing Childe Harold, this initial forage into the Don Juan manner has come to signal a "process of disengagement" in Byron's canon, a repudiation of pre-exile modes and themes. The division of McGann's influential studies of Byron reflects an abiding fissure: Don Juan finds no real place in the fairly comprehensive Fiery Dust; it is held apart instead for the later Don Juan in Context. Ironically enough, the latter study's valuable insight that "DJ is a poem that is, in fact, always in transition"—shuttling between engagements with biography, history, forms of rhetoric, and its own plot—seems purchased by isolation of the poem from the rest of Byron's canon. It is an isolation that opens up real explanatory gaps in studies that build on McGann's characterization of Don Juan as an "assault upon the degenerate poetical manners of his day," an "attack upon [the] romantic stylistic revolution," and "Byron's practical illustration of the sort of critical stance romantic poetry ought to take toward itself" (McGann, Don Juan in Context 63, 73, 107). One sifts in vain through Jerome Christensen's ever-resourceful Lord Byron's Strength, for example, to find an indication of exactly why Byron would buck the system that had marketed him so well, why he would launch the "revolutionary text" (215) of Don Juan—a postmodern shakeup of "Byronism" and its "cultural monopoly" (220) that appears in Christensen's pages as suddenly as a rock through a shop window.
The division of Byron's work and pre- and post- Don Juan is often justified by his letters from Venice, such as the one specifically quoted by McGann, signaling the poet's disengagement from the "wrong revolutionary poetical system." Byron was clearly taken with this disavowal of a past revolution, repeating it several times, yet doing little to define a new program, a better revolution. In 1818 he would distance himself again from the "wrong poetical system"—a phrase so broad it could refer to the Byronic Hero as well as Wordsworth's Excursion; "I mean all (Lakers included)," Byron wrote to the also-implicated poet Thomas Moore. And yet, as usual, the longer Byron continues his repudiation, the more a complicating nostalgia enters into his writing. "‘Us youth’ were on the wrong tack," Byron elaborates, "But I never did say that we did not sail well." As Peter Manning has pertinently observed, the buried reference to Falstaff in Byron's letter could easily signal ulterior tactics, and certainly muddles the letter as a statement of intent. The next modulations of the letter to Moore suggest a simultaneous flightiness and persistence:
The next generation (from the quantity and facility of imitation) will tumble and break their necks off our Pegasus, who runs away with us… Talking of horses, I not only get a row in my gondola, but a spanking gallop of some mile daily along a firm & solitary beach. (Feb. 2, 1818; BLJ 6.10)
Byron's prose here plunges wildly from the nautical to the equestrian, from post-revolutionary sobriety to nostalgic pride, from poetic manifesto to the merest biographical detail which, nevertheless, refers right back to the entrance of that most hardened of early Byronic heroes, the Giaour:
Who thundering comes on blackest steed,
With slacken'd bit and hoof of speed?
Beneath the clattering iron's sound
The cavern'd echoes wake around
In lash for lash, and bound for bound;
The foam that streaks the courser's side
Seems gather'd from the ocean-tide.
Though weary waves are sunk to rest,
There's none within his rider's breast;
And though to-morrow's tempest lower,
'Tis calmer than thy heart, young Giaour!
Ultimately, the challenge to Moore and any reader of Byron's "revolutionary" letter of 1818 lies in accounting for its waking echoes, the reemergence of what had seemed to be swept away.
Such evocation at the very moment of renunciation is typical of the way Byron vexes his reader with the interplay of fiction and life; it lures even critics who insist, like T. S. Eliot, that they are "not concerned" with the poet's life into scanning his writing for "honesty" or "genuine self-revelation.["] It comes as no surprise that Leslie Marchand, still Byron's best biographer, characterizes the revolution of the Don Juan manner as a sudden turn to self-representation: "With one stroke he freed himself from the fetters of British propriety and the Childe Harold manner, and something of the careless and relaxed realism of his letters invaded his verse. Let the critics cavil; he would be himself" (Marchand). But often in Byron's writing—even in supposedly direct self-representations, such as the 1818 letter—the invasion runs just the other way: verse invades his letters, and the originating self is unsettled by the specter of fictional models. The Byronic hero's persistent cameo in the very statement which implies his demise should lead us to regard even the most seemingly direct pronouncement in Byron as stalked by the fiction it supposedly controls …
Source: Mark Phillipson, "Byron's Revisited Haunts," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer 2000, 10 pp.
Abrams, M. H., Preface, in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, W. W. Norton, 1971, pp. 11-16.
———, "Sonnet, To The Same," in Poetical Works, edited by Frederick Page, new edition revised by John Jump, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 71.
———, "When We Two Parted," in The Poetical Works of Byron, Cambridge Edition, edited by Robert F. Gleckner, Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 151.
Franklin, Caroline, "Criticism," in Byron, Routledge, 2007, pp. 84-122.
———, "Life and Contexts," in Byron, Routledge, 2007, pp. 1-30.
Gatton, John Spalding, "George Gordon Byron," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 96: British Romantic Poets, 1789-1832, Second Series, edited by John R. Greenfield, Gale Research, 1990, pp. 18-69.
Glover, A. S. B., Introduction, in Byron, Penguin Books, 1954, pp. 7-16.
Marchand, Leslie A., "1816: The Separation," in Byron: A Biography, Vol. 2, Alfred A. Knopf, 1957, pp. 563-608.
———, "Shorter Romantic Poems," in Byron's Poetry: A Critical Introduction, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, pp. 117-35.
Perkins, David, "General Introduction," in English Romantic Writers, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967, pp. 1-24.
Phillipson, Mark, "Byron's Haunts Revisited," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer 2000, p. 303-24.
Soderholm, James, "Byron's Ludic Lyrics," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 34, No. 4, Autumn 1994, pp. 739-52.
Eldridge, Richard, The Persistence of Romanticism: Essays in Philosophy and Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Eldridge offers a philosophical defense of Romanticism's ethics and ideals and traces the literary legacy of the philosophical movement of Romanticism.
Elfenbein, Andrew, "Byronism and the Work of Homosexual Performance in Early Victorian England," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 4, December 1993, pp. 535-67.
Elfenbein analyzes the perceptions that early Victorians had regarding Byron's scandalous sexual behavior. Elfenbein also emphasizes the relationship between his celebrity and his homosexuality.
Fletcher, Christopher, "Lord Byron: Unrecorded Autograph Poems," in Notes and Queries, Vol. 43, No. 4, December 1996, pp. 425-29.
Fletcher discusses five autographed poems by Byron, discovered in the papers belonging to Sara Sophia Fane, Fifth Countess of Jersey. The poems were inscribed privately to Lady Jersey. Other versions of the poems were later published.
MacDonald, D. L., "Childhood Abuse as Romantic Reality: The Case of Lord Byron," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 1-2, Spring-Summer 1994, pp. 24-48.
In discussing the sexual abuse that Byron suffered at the hands of his maid when he was a youngster (ages nine through eleven), MacDonald assesses the effects of the abuse on Byron's poetry, observing that Byron's frequent return to the subject of premature aging sprang from these experiences.
McGann, Jerome J., Introduction, in Lord Byron: The Major Works, Oxford University Press, 2000.
McGann offers a concise overview of Byron's life, major works, and critical reception.