A summary of a classic poem
The story of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s possible romantic involvement with Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, is a drama all in itself. But what is remarkable about Wyatt’s poetry – especially ‘They Flee from Me’ – is the way he dramatises life at court, and personal relationships, in a short poem, using language in a direct, muscular way that was largely new in English verse. But Wyatt was writing nearly five centuries ago, so a few words by way of analysis are necessary to tease out the meaning of his work.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, ‘Dear heart, how like you this?’
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
‘They Flee from Me’ is one of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s best-known poems and is often reprinted in poetry anthologies. It’s almost a shorthand for the Tudor court and the way men and women would use others to gain an advantage or a position, only to discard them when they had served their purpose. It’s interesting that Wyatt uses in ‘They Flee from Me’ the same motifs of wildness and tameness that he also used in his celebrated sonnet, ‘Whoso List to Hunt’. The women of King Henry’s court are portrayed as semi-wild, unpredictable, even dangerous.
The verse form of ‘They Flee from Me’ is a form known as rhyme royal, rhymed ababbcc. The form was first used in English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer, in his long narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde (a poem about a doomed love affair, oddly enough). The metre of the poem is, for the most part, that quintessentially English metre: iambic pentameter.
We might paraphrase the meaning of ‘They Flee from Me’ as follows: ‘The people who used to love spending time with me, now actively run away when they see me coming. They used to come to my bedroom and lie with me, naked and tame and gentle; now they are like wild animals which cannot be tamed, and it’s as if they don’t even remember that they used to put themselves in danger by associating with me, like friendly animals eating bread from my hand. Now they are like wild animals who roam around, seeking something new all the time. Thankfully, in the past things were different, and twenty times better for it: I remember once, in particular, one female associate of mine was wearing skimpy clothing after a pleasant show, and her loose gown fell from her shoulders and she caught me in her long, slender arms, and kissed me sweetly. It wasn’t a dream: I was wide awake. But now everything has been ruined, because I’m too nice for my own good, and she forsakes me. I am free to let her go, and she can go with new people. But, since she has seen fit to use me in such a way, do you think she deserves my kindness?’
It’s fair to say the poem loses something in paraphrase, as all great poems must. And what marks out Sir Thomas Wyatt’s verse is a new directness and frankness about sexual relations between men and women. Although Wyatt often took his cue from the poetry of Petrarch, with many of his poems being loose translations from the Italian, Wyatt’s love – despite being centred at court – is not ‘courtly’ in the same way as we find in the work of many medieval poets. He admires from a distance, but unlike many of the courtly love poets, he did once know what it was like to be close to the woman he worships – she shared her body with him, putting herself in danger (the Tudor court was a world of backstabbing and one-upmanship), and even sought him out, making the first move. And now she has got tired of him and moved on.
But it’s the language employed by Wyatt, as well as the images of women at court as wild animals, which gives ‘They Flee from Me’ its real power. For instance, ‘gentle, tame, and meek’ in the third line of the first stanza seems pointlessly pleonastic: surely they all mean the same thing? Well, not in a world in which ‘gentleness’ denotes social standing and breeding as well as individual kindness (consider the older meaning of ‘gentleman’ here), thus giving that word an extra layer of meaning. ‘Continual change’ doesn’t strike us as oxymoron for the sake of oxymoron: after all, for Wyatt the women’s fickleness is, paradoxically, their one consistent quality. And note how ‘served’ and ‘deserved’ are not simply rhymes in that final couplet: ‘deserved’ repeats ‘served’, turning that soft ‘s’ into a harsh one as the poem hardens into bitter resentfulness.
Below is ‘They Flee from Me’ with its original spelling. Although it’s easier to follow than the Middle English of Chaucer, reading the poem in its unmodernised version can bring us closer to Wyatt’s language and, by extension, his time.
They fle from me that sometyme did me seke
With naked fote stalking in my chambre.
I have sene theim gentill, tame, and meke
That nowe are wyld and do not remembre
That sometyme they put theimself in daunger
To take bred at my hand; and nowe they raunge
Besely seking with a continuell chaunge.
Thancked be fortune it hath ben othrewise
Twenty tymes better, but ons in speciall,
In thyn arraye after a pleasaunt gyse,
When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her armes long and small,
Therewithall swetely did me kysse,
And softely said ‘dere hert, howe like you this?’
It was no dreme: I lay brode waking.
But all is torned thorough my gentilnes
Into a straunge fasshion of forsaking;
And I have leve to goo of her goodeness,
And she also to vse new fangilnes.
But syns that I so kyndely ame served,
I would fain knowe what she hath deserved.
‘They Flee from Me’, like many of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s finest poems, benefits from close analysis and from slow reading (and rereading). If you enjoyed this poem, you can find more of Wyatt’s poems here. However, we’d also recommend getting hold of English literature’s first poetry anthology, the 1557 collection Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others (Penguin Classics), which contains many more gems by Wyatt and his fellow Tudor poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, as well as helpful notes and an informative introduction.
Image: Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein, published by J. Chamberlain in 1812, Wikimedia Commons.