Sometimes a poem can change your life; but when is it ever just the poem?

This is about a poem, When We Two Parted, by Lord Byron. Because it is beautiful. Because it is the first poem that I remember truly enjoying, after years of being blind to it: the first one that spoke to my soul. Because it was the first poem I could recite from my heart. Because through this poem and the person who I lived it with, I discovered what truth and beauty really are.

I remember the first night I met her. What makes man different from the animals is that we can transcend our situation and pluck meaning out of nothing. A group of beasts on the most beautiful African steppe at sunset is never anything more than a group of beasts, with no memory of yesterday or dream of tomorrow. A group of humans in the most beastly surroundings is potentially anything we can imagine, and much more besides. Even love.

It was a dive, it was late, I was drunk. My company was poor. Then I spotted her in the distance. Sweet lady nicotine. The girl I would soon know lit a cigarette, half-inhaled it, and deposited her lighter in a place she would instantly forget but I observed from afar. I mumbled an excuse to my friends and breezed over. I asked her for a cigarette, and offered her a pound; a standard trick. She gave me it for free. She started to pat her pockets, the table, her bag, looking for that lighter; I knew where it was. We spent half our time together looking for that lighter, and the other half on fire.

She said I seemed to be a nice guy. Seems they were hard to come by in this town, she said. That's how it is in this system: they throw you together, and then they rip you apart. Three years to build a community from nothing; three years to put down roots, to find your relatedness to others. And then it is all over. Unless you build something that is so strong that no geography, no autonomy, no time can overcome it, eventually it will fade. That is the fate of us, the individuals.

We met again; we put down roots. The first few times I would be drunk, she would be high. She said she thought she had met me at a very strange time in my life; I agreed, and hoped the reference was unconscious. I said I thought every time in her life was strange, and she agreed: she was always a becoming, never an is. She took down my is, she took it down piece by piece, and she made me a becoming.

She taught me things I never knew could exist. We lay beneath the covers, entwined, toes twirling as we recited Byron and Shakespeare to nothing and each other, smoke twirling around the alarm. Suddenly I knew what a Muse was, I knew what a Muse could be. Beauty flowed around me - not just her, not just the words, but it all together; this is what God means, the totality of existence: everything interlinked, and everything in its place. I finally understood the phrase, 'The angels are lost in contemplation of an infinite glory' - and not for suddenly finding religion.

A very old man once gave us two views of love. He said the quest for love is the quest for truth, because only through contemplating the beautiful with our eyes do we proceed to see the beautiful with our mind. I never knew how true that was until I met you, Holly - I never knew it was true at all. Then the old man said, with his tongue in his cheek, that love was a result of what the gods did to us long ago - to cripple us. The gods split us in two, and cast our other half away into the ocean of the world - and until we find that one drop that completes us, we'll never rest. I never knew this until I found you, Holly.

We spent so long looking for that lighter, for a lighter that would last for ever. But however many cigarettes we smoked in that bed together, with Byron and smoke swirling around us, it just wasn't anywhere to be found. One day you'll find a place, Holly, where you don't need it, where just you is enough; and I will too. But until then, how do I feel? Like you do - cheated by reality, cheated by our sense of becoming, cheated by a perfection so fragile that any attempt to touch it, to treat it, could only destroy it. And that is how we two parted.

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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 I shall rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.

IV.

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.

When We Two Parted, Lord Byron

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