how to read romantic poetry Percy Bysshe Shelley love's philosophy lord Byron when we two parted gcse aqa poetry

How to read Romantic poetry (II): Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ & Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’

(This post contains videos of the two poems’ analysis – see bottom of post)

In my previous post on Wordsworth and Keats, we looked at some of the ways in which nature is presented in Romantic poetry.

I also mentioned that there are 6 canonical Romantic poets (the ‘Big 6’), among whom Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and Lord Byron (1788-1824) continue to occupy an important space in English literary studies today. 

Like Keats, Shelley and Byron died at a relatively young age, both under rather dramatic circumstances.

Shelley drowned in a violent storm right before his 30th birthday (an ironically ‘Romanticist’ death which captures the power of nature), whereas Byron contracted a fever while fighting in the Greek War of Independence, dying at the age of 36. 

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Shelley and Byron as larger-than-life figures 

The two poets were friends, and along with Mary Shelley (Percy Shelley’s second wife and author of the Gothic novel Frankenstein), the three belonged to the same intellectual coterie and were sources of mutual inspiration.

This was known as the ‘Shelley-Byron Pisan circle’. ‘Pisan’ because the poets were staying in Pisa, Italy, when they became friends. 

Mary Shelley Percy Bysshe Shelley lord Byron

While the term ‘Romanticism’ doesn’t relate to romance in the sense of love, love and romance are nonetheless a thematic fixture in Romantic poems.

It’s especially interesting to read Shelley and Byron’s portrayals of love, if not only because both of them had such turbulent – and some would say, controversial – romantic relationships.

Between the two, there were enough elopements, infidelities and incest to fill up the front pages of today’s tabloids for days on end. 

Against his father’s wishes, Shelley ran away with a girl named Harriet Westbrook when he was 19. They married soon after, but Shelley abandoned Westbrook after he made the acquaintance of the political philosopher William Godwin and his daughters, one of whom was Mary Shelley, who Percy would eventually marry three weeks after the suicide of his first wife (who was apparently pregnant when she drowned herself).

Byron was arguably worse.

A notorious heart-breaker, the Baron’s romantic liaisons were scandalous and manifold, which included fathering children with distant cousins and having sex with teenage boys, having affairs with married aristocrats and dumping them the moment he got bored.

There was no shortage of material for exciting poetry, to say the least – Byron’s life was pulp fiction writ large. 

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A quick note on ‘biographical criticism’

When it comes to poetry analysis, however, having this sort of biographical knowledge could pose occasional problems for the reader, who may be tempted to view the poem through the prism of authorial intent.

Short of the Barthsian ‘Death of the Author’ creed, it’s important that we see the biographical approach to interpretation as just one of many possible methods of reading.

While we may find it an ‘aha’ moment when we discover that the poet had a heartbreak in the same year he wrote a poem about a heartbreak, it’s important we don’t take it for granted that there’s necessarily a link between the two events. 

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The bottom line is: while context is important (especially when it concerns the historical, political and socio-cultural influences of a writer’s time), it should always be secondary to the text itself, which is what we should dedicate our primary focus on. 

But back to Shelley and Byron. In this post, let’s compare two of their poems about love – Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ and Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’. 

Reading Percy Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’: love me, maybe?

Shelley love's philosophy sub cover

The fountains mingle with the river
   And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
   With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
   All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
   Why not I with thine?— 

See the mountains kiss high heaven
   And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
   If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
   And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
   If thou kiss not me?

The main premise of this poem is the interconnectedness of “all things” in the world – an idea that Wordsworth touches upon through his characterisation of Nature in ‘Tintern Abbey’. 

Nature is –  

A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

(Tintern Abbey)

Since all things are intertwined, Shelley’s speaker argues by virtue of “a law divine” – an encoded, sacred principle – that a natural union also exists between him and his target of affection.

This, of course, is a non sequitur that John Donne uses in ‘The Flea’, wherein the speaker argues that because both he and his lover were bitten by the same flea, their bloods are ‘fused’ and they should thus mix, um, other bodily fluids (a euphemism for sex).

Granted, Shelley’s poem is less sexual than Donne’s, but the frame of argument is similar. 

The title of this poem should be of immediate interest to the close reader: instead of ‘The Philosophy of Love’, ‘Love’s Philosophy’ casts ‘Love’ in the possessive case with the apostrophe ‘s’, which personifies the emotion and imbues it with a life of its own, but the academic word ‘philosophy’ also prepares us for a didactic tone.

On the surface, the form seems markedly regular, with two octaves – mirrored by the rhyme of “fountains” and “mountains” in the first line of each stanza. For all the insistence on oneness, though, the fact that there are two individual stanzas reflect the romantic distance that still exists between the speaker and his addressee. He hasn’t quite won her affections yet, and the gap between the stanzas is a visual reinforcement of this. 

But there’s playfulness in the syntax to offset this gulf. For example, in the anadiplosis of “the river/And the rivers” across lines 1 and 2, and the chiastic parallelism of “kiss high heaven” and “clasp one another” in lines 9 and 10 vis-a-vis “clasps the earth” and “kiss the sea” in lines 13 and 14. These syntactical arrangements reflect an underlying principle of unity and harmony, which binds nature and man as one. 

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If we examine the prosody, we’ll also notice certain irregularities in the meter and rhythm, which could suggest the emotional turbulence that the speaker feels in his pursuit of love (despite the suaveness of his words). It’s worth pointing out that the final line of each stanza (i.e. the two rhetorical questions in the poem) contain the fewest number of syllables (5) compared to the rest of the lines.

They are also examples of a catalectic trochaic trimeter (with a missing un-stress at the end), which may highlight the sense of incompleteness that the speaker feels without the love of his addressee.

The use of trochees, however, reflects the strong sense of insistence in the speaker’s tone – and will. 

Another structural observation relates to the use of enjambment, its interplay with end-stops, and the tension Shelley creates between run-on lines and the antitheses these lines contain. First, there’s only two lines in the poem which is sandwiched between a pair of caesurae – line 5 and 8: 

With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;

– line 5

And 

“In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?”

– line 8 

Not coincidentally, these lines combined encapsulate the key message of the poem: if all is connected, why shouldn’t we be too?

By marking these lines out with caesura, Shelley conveys the Romantic notion of the all-encompassing ‘organic whole’, which the speaker uses to justify the possibility of a romantic union.

In the second stanza, the natural distinction between “mountains” and “waves” (land vs sea), “sister-flower” and “brother” (female vs male), “sunlight” and “moonbeams” (day vs night) is fused in a landscape of ‘oneness’ and joined up by enjambment, as lines 9, 11 and 13 spill into their respective next lines.

This erases any antithetical polarity and culminates in a seemingly ‘inevitable’ conclusion, signalled by the colon at the end of line 14 – “What is all this sweet work worth/If thou kiss not me?” 

The idea of an integrated, boundless world surfaces with the overarching water imagery in the poem.

The opening lines introduce various sources of water – “the fountains”, “the river/s” and “the ocean”, but the fact that they “mingle with” each other suggests these are just names we ascribe to different bodies of water, and that fundamentally there is no difference between them – they are all one and the same.

The heavy use of personification draws the realm of nature closer to that of man – indeed, the idea is that nature and man are but two sides of the same coin, bounded by this “one spirit” of love and union.

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The build-up in emotional intensity is likewise reflected by Shelley’s use of kinaesthetic imagery. From the gentler movements of “mingle”, “mix” and “meet” in the first stanza, the speaker goes on to reference more aggressive actions like “kiss” and “clasp”. This reflects the dogged insistence in his pursuit of their romantic union. 

So if all elements in nature can “meet and mingle” and “kiss” and “clasp”, then why shouldn’t this also apply to relationships in the human world? 

The alliterative composition of this poem is interesting.

While the first stanza is dominated by the ‘w’ semivowel and the ‘m’ nasal sound, the second stanza’s emphasis is on plosive (‘d’ and ‘b’) and guttural (‘k’ and ‘c’ – as ‘k’) sounds.

Perhaps this is more of a facetious point, but when we pronounce the consonants ‘w’ and ‘m’, our lips pucker up and smack against each other, which are motions that either intend to seduce, or convey amorous feelings. In terms of the overall shift from gentle to louder sounds, this amplifies the speaker’s voice and emotional intensity, which aligns with the sublime natural imagery of mountains, waves, sunlight, moonbeams and sea in the latter half of the poem.

The cluster of ‘louder’ consonants builds up to a definitive climax, only to soften in a detumescence of quieter, alliterative tones, as seen from the semivowels and nasals in the final two lines – “What is all this sweet work worth/If thou kiss not me?” 

J.M.W Turner | Grace Hatton the Author's Blog | Turner painting, Joseph  mallord william turner, William turner

Reading Lord Byron’s ‘When We Two Parted’ (1816): heartbroken, or pretending to be?

Byron WWTP sub cover

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 the 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 know 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.

*In this section, I have marked out in green sections of the analysis which are compared with Shelley’s ‘Love Philosophy. 

Given Byron’s wild romantic history, it’s hard not to read his love poetry in the light of his own relationships.

Scholars have suggested that Byron wrote ‘When We Two Parted’ after he found out that one of his flings, Lady Frances Webster, was having an affair with the Duke of Wellington.

So much for breaking hearts left right and center – Byron was finally given a taste of his own medicine.

WWTP context gif

So the result of his apparent heartbreak over Lady Frances is the bane of many English Literature students today – aka studying the poem ‘When We Two Parted’. 

will smith GIF by Carpool Karaoke: The Series on Apple Music

On the surface, the poem is about the disappointment and grief one feels about a failed romance, which is something that most people can identify with.

But a closer reading will reveal more to it than meets the eye… 

There are a couple of broad similarities and differences between ‘When We Two Parted’ and ‘Love’s Philosophy’. While Byron’s speaker is lamenting the loss of a relationship but Shelley’s is anticipating (and seducing) a potential lover, both poets deploy the octave and alternate rhyme scheme.

There are, of course, points of formal divergence, so let’s start with those. 

One of the more striking observations we can make about this poem is the strong sense of division between the speaker and his lover. This emphasis on there being two separate people is present in the title – “we two parted”, the idea being that there is no longer a relationship in the present, whatever amorous feelings that may remain.

This is contrary to ‘Love’s Philosophy’, which seeks union and synthesis, instead of dissociation and division. 

In the first stanza, the hyperbaton in “Pale grew thy cheek and cold,/Colder thy kiss” performs a figurative ‘severing’ of the normal syntax (‘Thy cheek grew pale and cold’), as does the caesura of the comma between these two lines. This reiterates the idea of a severed tie, which is conveyed in the preceding line – “To sever for years”. 

Similar to ‘Love’s Philosophy’, ‘When We Two Parted’ features an alternate rhyme scheme, but it is less regular and is complicated by a repetitive ‘glitch’ in the third stanza. 

What does this mean? In the third stanza, notice that there are two repeated rhyming pairs – “me” and “me” in lines 17 and 19; “thee” and “thee” in lines 21 and 23. It’s interesting, too, that both the “me” and “thee” rhyming pairs are chiastically arranged with “mine” in line 18 and another “thee” in line 22.

Once again, we see a clear distinction between two individuals, here – the ‘me’ of the speaker and ‘thee’ of his lover are placed in clear parallel juxtaposition. Parallel lines never cross each other, and so, perhaps the idea here is that they are never to cross each other’s paths – ever again.

parallel lines

The rhetorical question in line 20 – ‘Why wert thou so dear?’ – functions as a sort of axis of symmetry between the group of ‘me-s’ and ‘thee-s’, suggesting that while the speaker and his lover were once so alike in their love, they are now divided and broken up into two.

Screen Shot 2020-09-07 at 8.04.55 AM

In ‘Love’s Philosophy, however, the rhetorical questions are impatient in their pursuit of intimacy. Both “I” and “thine” are present and joined up in them (“Why not I with thine?”, “If thou kiss not me?”). 

 The desire for Byron’s speaker to disassociate himself from his lover makes sense, because we know from lines 15-16 in stanza 2 that her “name spoken” comes with “shame”, which is indicated by the internal rhyme of “name” and “shame”. 

Another interesting observation is the prosody of this poem (For details on how to understand rhythm in poetry, check out this post). 

The first four lines alternate between dactylic and anapestic dimeter, and conclude in a string of dactyls with a masculine ending (stress). Thereafter, the rest of the poem is mostly in anapestic dimeter

Courtesy of the dactyls, lines 7-8 are perhaps the strongest lines in the poem. “Truly that hour foretold/Sorrow to this”. By flipping the stress pattern around immediately after these lines, perhaps Byron is having his speaker signal a 180-degree change in attitude towards the lover: the first four lines – alternating between anapests and dactyls, this mirror the ambivalence he initially feels between pity and shame, then, once he realises his lover for what she’s done, there’s a sense of finality conveyed by the series of dactyls which suggests he’s ready to move on.

Interestingly, after the dactyls in stanza 1, the rest of the poem’s rhythm is largely anapestic

These anapests project a sense of predictability – as if the speaker is suggesting that he had predicted the lover’s betrayal. This echoes the foreboding reference to “It felt like the warning” in line 11.

After stanza 1, then, the speaker’s ‘lament’ seems less like a genuine emotional outpour of grief, and more a crafted testimony of one who’s supposed to feel grief. You feel the merry-go-round sort of swing when there’s too many anapests, and after a while, it gets a bit monotonous. 

One more point before we move on from rhythm: note that while stanzas 2 and 3 alternate between feminine and masculine endings, stanza 4 only contains masculine endings – all its lines end on a stress.

This tells us that the speaker has progressed from not being of two minds and hearts about letting this doomed relationship go, to finally deciding that he’s definitely going to cut everything off – once and for all.

driving the open road GIF by Aurelie Pollet

So the shift to only masculine endings solidifies the speaker’s resoluteness about not having anything to do with his lover anymore.

Compared this to the prosody of ‘Love’s Philosophy’, which begins with feminine endings, but ends in masculine endings. Rather than reinforcing a wish to connect, Byron’s shift to all masculine endings conveys the opposite desire – to ‘sever’. 

There are two particularly interesting sets of imagery at play. There’s the visual imagery of the droplet in “dew of the morning” and the twice-repeated “tears” in “silence and tears”; there’s the sonic imagery of a ‘deafening silence’ in the reference to “a knell to mine ear” and again, the thrice-repeated word “silence”, which appears twice in the phrase “silence and tears”. 

While the morning dew is a biblical allusion, symbolising truth and virtue, the heartbroken tears are a result of deceit and unvirtuous behaviour (and this could be said for both the lover and the speaker, given the secretive nature of their affair). Byron also repurposes the dew from being a symbol of truth to an omen of betrayal – as in line 10, it “sunk chill on my brow” and verified his suspicions. 

The “knell” is a bell played at a funeral, and is a symbol of death. Being an object one would find in a sacred space – the church, the knell seems to give their illicit relationship a veneer of holiness, and so to a certain extent, justifies it from the speaker’s point of view.

But the knell is also a cliched image, which raises the question as to just how genuine the speaker’s emotions are.

knell

If we think about this word in relation to the repeated word “silence”, this adds to the impression of dread and crestfallenness that the speaker wants to suggest about his response to the lover’s deeds. 

To an extent, the alliteration of sibilants in the final stanza (“secret”, “silence”, “spirit”, “deceive”, “should” etc.) reinforce this idea of silence, but isn’t all that quiet when read in such close succession. This raises the irony of whether the speaker is really grieving in silence, because if he were, then there probably wouldn’t even be this poem and its words to begin with. 

Notice that there’s a couple of polyptoton (in the form of tense shifts) throughout the poem, including “felt” to “feel” in stanza 2; “know” to “knew” in stanza 3; and “met” to “meet” in stanza 4. This differentiation between what is past and what is present aligns with our interpretation so far, which is the speaker’s wish to dissociate himself from this shameful, underground relationship. 

Why does the speaker say “knew thee”, for example? Apart from the possible wordplay on ‘knew’ as a Biblical word for ‘sex’, the fact that this verb is in past tense suggests that the lover he once knew is different from the betrayal he now ‘knows’. 

In the rhetorical question of line 20 – “Why wert thou so dear?”, the word “wert” the archaic form of “were”, which is the past tense of “was”. This also reinforces the idea of the lover having once been dear to the speaker, but not anymore.

In the penultimate line, the modal auxiliary ‘should’ in “How should I greet thee?” also conveys a sense of obligation, as if suggesting that any future encounter between the speaker and “thou” will be at most a matter of courtesy and goodwill, rather than one of intimacy or affection.  

There’s the curious question, then, of whether this poem is truly the expression of a lover’s grief, or is instead an aestheticisation of the grieving process. 


Check out my YouTube videos for a detailed walkthrough of each poem: 

To read my analysis of other poems, check out the posts below: 

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