Task: Using a selection of pre-twentieth century verse, compare and contrast the ways in which different poets approach the themes of love and loss.
“When We Two Parted” written by Lord Byron, “Remember” written by Christina Rossetti and “My Last Duchess” written by Robert Browning are three pre-twentieth century poems about the ups and downs of love. “When We Two Parted” is a poem about Lord Byron’s own secret relationship that failed secretly and tragically when he called it off, yet he feels heartbroken when she finds someone else, breaking their promise to wait for each other. “Remember” also describes how the plans of lovers can go wrong. Rossetti tries to prepare her lover for her impending death. She asks only that he “remembers” her. Likewise, “My Last Duchess” includes the theme of death, as a paranoid Duke tells the story of how and why he killed his wife. While the poems vary in terms of style and techniques, all three poets tackle the issue of love and loss.
“When We Two Parted” is a first person narrated poem written for a specific audience. Byron uses the poem as a means by which to send his ex-lover a message in secret. In the poem he reflects upon the break up as he speaks in the past tense. He tells us that they met in “secret”, which could mean there relationship was ethically unacceptable; this is what may have caused the break up. Byron says that their separation left both parties “Half broken-hearted” suggesting that they had promised each other to reunite at a more convenient time, most likely for him, which would have been a selfish request. Even though it was his selfishness that caused her to leave him, he still feels betrayed and as if her “vows are all broken”. He is upset to hear her “name spoken” in gossip as rumours of her seeing another man are spread. These unwanted rumours may have also caused Byron to give up any chance they might have had of getting back together. He would not want his reputation to be tarnished by hers.
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Byron uses symbolism to convey his emotional grief. He uses the word “cold” to express the unwillingness of his former lover to split up. “Colder thy kiss” illustrates how upset the woman was about the break up and how she was against it, suggesting Byron was the one who called it off. Even after her “cold” departure, he still feels the “chill” of the separation. Looking back at Lord Byron’s life leads us to believe that this poem is autobiographical, as he was known to have both secret and socially inappropriate relationships. What the poem does not look at is the woman’s perspective. Clearly the woman was not for the separation. She also leaves “in silence and tears”. Byron repeats these words to emphasise the grief and heart break feels. At the end of the poem he uses a hypothetical question to show that nothing will change; and he will always remain “in silence and tears”.
Like “When We Two Parted”, “Remember” is first person narrated with a specific audience in mind. Rossetti tries to prepare her lover for her looming death as she was known to have a fatal illness. Although Rossetti has a selfish wish in the poem she remembers to put her partner’s feelings in front of her own and tells him to “forget and smile” rather than “remember and be sad”. Rossetti also uses symbolism to describe her vision of death. She calls it the “silent land” as if she feels that she will achieve some peace in what she believes to be life after death. She is hesitant to say the word death as she fears it may upset her partner. She uses metaphors such as “darkness and corruption” to refer both to death and her illness.
What makes “Remember” different to “When We Two Parted” is that it gives a woman’s point of view. Byron’s viewpoint is very biased as he only thinks of his own feelings, however Rossetti does not make this mistake and the sole purpose of the poem is to soften the blow of her death for her lover. Their relationship seems to be based true love while Byron’s is based more upon jealousy than true affection.
The emotions of the main characters in “My Last Duchess” are of a similar jealous nature. Robert Browning uses first person narration to tell the tale of a ruthless Duke who kills his wife out of jealousy. However this poem, unlike the others, is not directed at a specific audience nor is it autobiographical as the narrator, unlike the poet, is a Duke. The Duke is made out to be extremely paranoid and often his suspicions are the result of something completely innocent. For instance, he wonders where “the depth and passion” in his wife’s face came from, when he looks now at the last painting of her. Not only is he paranoid, he is also a cold and calculated murderer. He “gave commands” to stop “all smiles together”. He does not “stoop” to her level by killing her himself, but he knows how to get the job done, suggesting the possibility of previous murders.
Browning sets the scene as if the Duke is speaking to someone lower than him, namely someone in the service of “The count”. As they speak, the Duke creates hypothetical situations where he re-enacts a scene that he thinks may happened, for example quoting something he suspects “Frá Pandolf” might of said, like “Her mantle laps over my ladies wrist too much”. This is much like “When We Two Parted” where Byron asks himself a hypothetically how he should greet his former lover if he meets her again. Although it appears that the Duke’s motive for murder is love and the feeling of betrayal, his wife may not have committed adultery. Not once does confront his wife and ask her about the alleged affair, claiming that he does not wish to “stoop”. He also brings up the topic of dowries towards the end as he is again negotiating to marry. If, as he states, the money does not matter to him, why does he bring it up? Could his wife’s death be one in a chain of murders designed to earn money? The themes of love and loss are tackled very differently in “Remember” where Rossetti expresses true love for her partner, while both the male writers appear to be more biased and selfish, neglecting the feelings the people they are meant to love.
Looking back at the poems, it maybe that their themes are the same but the view of love and loss is unique for each poet. “When We Two Parted” is much like “My Last Duchess” in that both male characters feel jealousy and betrayal, while “Remember” focuses instead on the unselfish wish of the narrator to put her lovers feelings ahead of her own. In my opinion Rossetti is the only one understands the concept of true love. Byron on the other hand, seems to mistake this feeling for jealousy. “My Last Duchess” is the only poem of the three that is not autobiographical. The Duke is a fictional character whose love is again possessive like Lord Byron’s. Only Rossetti believes that her love will continue after her inevitable death.
WORD COUNT : 1103
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
This is a very articulate, comparative essay, which provides interesting parallels and contrasts between the poems. With more attention to quotation and closer observation of poetic techniques, it would have achieved the highest rating. ****