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June 18th, 1815: Napoleon's war mongering was finally put to an end at the Battle of Waterloo, a field just south of Brussels, Belgium where an alliance of British and Prussian forces tag-teamed up to put the smack down to Napoleon's French army. The defeat of one of European history's most successful conquerors, however, came at a high price: over 50,000 dead, wounded, and missing (French, Prussian, and British). The hero of this allied victory? One Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. And you thought Wellington was just a cool way to eat beef.
After his glorious victory, our man Wellington became The Man across Europe. A notorious womanizer before Waterloo, his military achievements only heightened his appeal to the ladies. In 1816, he was involved in a scandalous affair with the very un-sexily-named Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, who was (gasp!) a married woman at the time. While Wellington may or may not have gone down this sordid road before, Lady Frances certainly had. Not long before her fling with the Duke, she had some type of (perhaps inappropriate) relationship with one of the most (in)famous poets of the day: George Gordon, Lord Byron. Now you see the connection, right?
Scholars think that it was partly due to this tabloid-worthy gossip—the rumored affair between Wellington and Lady Frances—that Byron wrote "When We Two Parted." The "we two" mentioned in the title are, after all, Byron and Lady Frances, who were involved in 1813 (some people refer to their tryst as a "flirtation," whatever that means). According to Byron, he "spared" her, which seems to mean he ended up not consummating his relationship with her. But then again… anything's possible with Lord B.
Reading "When We Two Parted," however, makes us think a little differently. Byron is purposely vague in the poem (no names are used) and his speaker seems not only legitimately upset about the end of his relationship with Lady Frances ("a shudder comes o'er me"), but also guilty of something: "I hear thy name spoken, / And share in its shame." Despite his feelings of sadness and despair—the moment of parting is tearful and a grim foreshadowing of the poet's state as he writes—Byron opted to "spare" Lady Frances again, despite his frustration. Byron deleted the poem's final stanza, which made it clear that Lady Frances was one of the characters, and lied about the date of the poem's composition (he claimed to have written in 1808, the big fibber) in order to distract and confuse any potentially clever literary detectives.
Byron was also a source of gossip, largely because of his many affairs. In this poem, then, we get a sense of the pot calling the kettle black, but also how turnabout is fair play. Need any more clichés? Yeah, we didn't think so. Just dive into the poem to see what Byron was really up to.
"Hey, did you guys hear, the hottest girl in school is dating Arthur?" a kid sitting at your lunch table says one day. "Yeah, I saw them together yesterday," exclaims another. "Yeah, I saw them out last weekend," some other kid adds. Shivers run down your spine. You can feel some tears welling up inside you. Quickly, you pretend you're allergies are acting up so nobody wonders why your eyes are all red. Why are they red anyway? And why are you freaking out?
Well, for starters, HGIS (the hottest girl in school) used to go with you a few months back. It was short-lived, and saying goodbye was really tough. You remember that morning before school when you guys decided to end it (it wasn't exactly up to you). It was chilly, dewy, dark—everything the weather should be when something really sad is happening. Her cheek was cold, and she didn't seem as sad as you. She kissed you one last time, but she kind of phoned that one in. You forgot about her for a while, but ever since she started dating this other dude Arthur, it's been making you feel pretty bad. Even hearing her name is enough to get you down.
The bad news is, you've gone through a breakup and for some reason are still hurting about it. The good news is, even some of the most famous people ever have felt the exact same way. Lord Byron is one, and that's what his poem "When We Two Parted" is mostly about. In a lot of ways, it's not just a breakup poem ("hey, I remember when we said goodbye, it was so awful," the poem partly says) but also a post-breakup poem: "Hey again, I still feel really bad about all this."
Granted, Byron's friendship, or affair, or relationship, or whatever, with Lady Frances (see "In a Nutshell" above) was different than the more normal relationships you've had or will have, the underlying idea is the same. Byron was sad about saying goodbye to Lady Frances, and while he may have forgotten about her for some time, his pain came back in full force once she got involved with another dude. Even the mention of her name was enough to irk him, just like the mention of the hottest girl in school's name irks you: "They name thee before me, / A knell to mine ear; / A shudder comes o'er me— / Why wert thou so dear?" (17-20).
Byron is upset, but he's not upset about being upset, and you shouldn't be either. Wait, explain that one. Okay, it's like this. It's been a while since Byron was involved with Lady F., and you and HGIS haven't been together in some time either, so why is it still upsetting? That's the mystery of human emotion that this poem alludes to, and that you will encounter throughout your life. It's okay to still be upset about something that happened a while ago. It's okay for somebody's name to make you feel funny. Byron realized that, and while he didn't like feeling like that, he was okay with the fact that that's how life is sometimes.
The Whole Thing
Here's an original version of "When We Two Parted," with its damning (and unpublished) stanza.
Longish, but Good
Here's a somewhat lengthy, but well-researched, biography of Byron from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Byron, by Moore
Byron's pal Thomas Moore sure had a lot to say about him (his "Life" is several hundred pages!).
Things Might Get Weird
This page talks about Caroline Lamb and her relationship to Byron.
We dig this cool video version.
Jam to Byron
A young girl puts "When We Two Parted" to music. The black and white is a nice touch.
Check out the indie rockers doing their own, modern version (not a cover, exactly).
This is How It's Done
A British man with a nice, soothing voice reads the poem, text included.
Well, it is Supposed to Sound Sad…
Here's a slightly more dull reading of the poem, but also one that captures some of its somber tone.
Angry, or Just Thinking Really Hard?
Check out a very famous painting of the brooding Byron.
Dig this famous profile of Byron.
Byron for Halloween?
Here's a famous painting of Byron dressed in a traditional Albanian outfit.
Here She is, Folks
Presenting Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, the woman who inspired "When We Two Parted" and had an affair with the Duke of Wellington (and perhaps Byron).
This article describes some crazy aspects of Byron's celebrity.
Byron and the Websters
Here's a book about the relationships between Byron, Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster, and her husband.
Wellington: The Iron Duke
Interested in the Duke who had an affair with Lady Frances? Look no further.
The Major Works
If you can't help yourself and need more Byron, start with this.
We'll bet this TV movie has some pretty good stuff in it.
The Duke Gets Around
Here's a list of all the movies where the Duke of Wellington, Lady Frances' lover at the time of the poem's composition, appears as a character.