To me, the first poem in a collection or anthology is crucial for establishing the poet or editor’s central concerns. And so when I first opened the AQA GCSE Anthology to Lord Byron’s “When We Two Parted”, I was struck by the emphasis on introducing students to the poetic canon. Skirting around the thorny issue of text selection for now, starting with this poem has a number of positives. Students can be introduced to the nuances of tone (what is the tone of the ambiguous line “half broken-hearted”?) and reading the poem on different levels (is this to be read simply as a poem about despair at the loss of a lover, or as a bitter criticism of a woman who dared take charge of the relationship?). As well as that, discussion of the poem’s poetic form and structure can be extremely fruitful and foregrounds the significance of a poem’s shape in understanding its meaning.
We can spend a lot of time getting caught up in the specific details of a poem’s form and structure (is it iambic dimeter or trimeter? Is that an example of half-rhyme?) and these considerations can have their place. However, I find that allowing students to identify a pattern and deviations from that pattern can allow for more open and confident discussion (and then we can pin it down to specific terms). It’s like making the students aware that a guitarist is playing a riff over a steady drum beat; the drums provide the structure for the song, whilst the guitar adds variations on the theme. And these structural concerns need to be fluently interwoven with analysis of the poem’s language, rather than being neatly separated (as knowledge organisers and revision guides sometimes seem to encourage, due to their nature as repositories of core knowledge).
So in “When We Two Parted”, the first thing students may notice is the rhyme scheme and they may describe it using the letters ABAB. The tightness created by this full rhyme is added to by repetition (“cold”, “coldness”) and consonance (“share”, “shame”). This close-knit soundscape communicates the speaker’s sense of entrapment in his memories of the past, and of his experience of loss in the present: he cannot escape the emotional torment he experiences. The chiastic structure of the rhyme scheme further emphasises this – “tears”/”years” in stanza 1 and “years”/”tears” in stanza 4. Similarly, the pronoun “thee” is repeated as a rhyming word 4 times towards the end of the poem, increasing the text’s claustrophobia, as well as highlighting the use of a slightly archaic word (compare “rue” and “wert”). Again, we are aware of a speaker whose future is entirely defined by his past.
Students may also notice the brevity of the lines (Neil Bowen’s The Art of Poetry is great on this). Byron is writing in accentual verse, where there is a fixed number of stresses but a varying number of syllables. So whilst the lines vary from 4 to 6 syllables, there are 2 stresses in each line. As in Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, these foreshortened lines create the impression of a poem that is withering away, just as the speaker’s emotional state is in decline. The proliferation of dashes and end-stopped lines also serves to cement this impression: the speaker is continually held back by his despair, which forestalls his ability to throw himself into society as he would wish. Just as he struggles to see a brighter future for himself, the speaker finds that his present is incessantly interrupted by the past.
So far, the poem’s structure tells us about the speaker’s despair and entrapment, drawing our attention to the pathos of the broken-hearted lover’s situation. Yet, exploring another structural feature can open up a different interpretation. Like “Love’s Philosophy” (printed on the following page in this anthology), the speaker of “When We Two Parted” is insistent in addressing his listener. Just as in Shelley’s poem, this insistence seems to grow towards the end (“How should I greet thee? / With silence and tears.”). A student in 2020 might describe this as “emotional blackmail”. When combined with the speaker’s insistence on his distressed state, the recurrent use of the second-person address appears to be placing pressure on the listener to act to save him from his unhappiness. The speaker’s description of himself as “half broken-hearted” introduces the idea that perhaps he is not as distraught as might appear at first glance, whilst the fact that the couple are going to “sever for years” hints at his (misguided) belief that there might be a reconciliation after those years have passed. When the context and the deleted stanza are taken into account (see https://poemshape.wordpress.com/2011/12/31/when-we-two-parted-%e2%80%a2-george-gordon-lord-byron/), the poem could be interpreted as disconsolate not just because the speaker has lost his lover, but also because he feels as if his reputation as a desirable lothario has been challenged.
This interpretation of “When We Two Parted” sets us on the path of exploring gender relations in this section of the anthology, which is a thread that also runs through Jekyll and Hyde, Macbeth, An Inspector Calls… Yet – to return to that thorny issue of text selection – whilst I appreciate the opportunity to discuss and critique representations of gender in these texts with my students, it would be good to have the opportunity to read more texts celebrating female empowerment. Analysing Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet 29” from a feminist perspective is enlightening and I enjoy Duffy’s “Before You Were Mine”, but there seem to be few other opportunities to read a positive depiction of women on the course. This is where the unseen component allows teachers freedom to select their own texts to broaden students’ awareness of non-canonical poets.