When we two parted In silence and tears, Half broken-hearted To sever for years,
The speaker begins with a statement. When he and some mysterious person "parted" (i.e., said goodbye), they did it silently, while crying. Sad, right?
They were also "half-broken-hearted," and, it turns out, separated for some years. Separated? Where did we get that from?
Ah, the word "sever" here means something like separated. It's kind of weird because usually you sever something (like, um, your pinky finger in a woodshop accident). Think of it like this: people would look at your funny if you were like "I'm severing" ("Severing what?" somebody might ask).
(Grammar note: verbs like "sever" that require an object are called transitive verbs. This is already in the TMI zone, but if you want even more TMI—TTMI—head here.)
It sounds like this is going to be one of those "it was so sad that we had to say goodbye" poems, except for the fact that the speaker and his mystery friend are only "half broken-hearted." Now that seems worth keeping in mind. It's possible that the phrase "half broken-hearted" means in fact that either one, or both of them, just didn't care all that much.
This could really change things up a bit. Perhaps it's just the woman who is "half broken-hearted" and the speaker is actually angry about it.
Also, keep in mind that we don't know what happened when they parted. These first four lines just give us the "when" part of a longer sentence.
That means we gotta keep reading to get the rest of this longish sentence.
Before we do that, though, did you notice the rhyme going on in lines 1 and 3, then 2 and 4? You might have also heard a similar beat going on there as well. Check out "Form and Meter" for more on how this poem's put together. Hurry back, though, because we gotta see what's up with our teary-eyed speaker…
Pale grew thy cheek and cold, Colder thy kiss;
Okay, so when the speaker and his friend parted ways, her (we'll guess it's a girl, though technically it could be a dude) cheek grew pale. Yes, that's how we would say it in normal speech, but in poetry it's cool to reverse the order to "pale grew thy cheek."
Apparently, that cheek also grew cold. Or did it? At first, it seems like "cold" also refers to the woman's cheek, but the next line tells us that, in fact, it refers to her kiss.
So, putting it all together we have something like: "Your cheek grew pale and cold, and your kiss grew even colder." Yes, you have to carry the "grew" over into the next line.
The million dollar question is, colder than what did the woman's kiss grow? (See Byron, we can invert our words too.)
Probably the cheek is what's meant here.
So, did the kiss grow cold because of the weather? Maybe—it can get pretty chilly across the pond in England.
Coldness may also be a metaphor for the way the woman is kissing the speaker. It's probably a pretty weak kiss if he's calling it "cold." It's an unwilling, unaffectionate kiss, if you will. She's totally phoning it in.
This may be her way of lessening the pain of separation. How? Well, maybe she knows she's gonna be sad about leaving, so she's starting to act like she cares less in order to feel the pain less.
It sounds crazy, but trust us, people do this kind of stuff. Let's read on to see if our guess was right.
Truly that hour foretold Sorrow to this.
The speaker offers a little comment about this whole incident. He says that that "hour" (i.e., the moment when they parted and her kiss was a frosty ice cube, etc.) was "truly […] foretold / Sorrow to this."
A.k.a. this moment dropped some serious hints about the "sorrow" and sadness that was coming for him.
To sum it up so far, we know that their severance totally marked the beginning of a very sad era for them. That's the best way to take it.
We've come to the end of the first of four stanzas, so we should probably take a peek at some of the, ahem, more literary elements going on here.
You may have noticed that the lines in this poem are of irregular length (some are long, some are short). The meter is actually very complicated, so we'll just tell you here that Byron makes it so that there are really only two stressed syllables per line (an example of something called accentual verse).
Meanwhile, the rhyme scheme, unlike the meter, is very regular: ABABCDCD.
Oh, and one last thing before we go on. Each stanza in this poem contains eight lines, which means this poem is comprised entirely of octets (that's a fancy name for an eight-line stanza).
You can read all about the serpentine twists and turns of rhythm, the rhyme, and the general form of this poem over at "Form and Meter."