There be dragons!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

They Flee From Me by Wyatt


They Flee From Me

by Sir Thomas Wyatt


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.


This is a three stanza poem consisting of seven lines of iambic pentameter rhymed ababbcc. It is a form of poetry called "Rhyme Royal" or "Troilus Stanza". The poem's subject is love and loss; the topic is that the heartache of loss sometimes comes because one loves too much. Although most people seem to read the poem as a sour grapes poem, the speaker simply lamenting that after one romantic fling he isn't any longer desired by the lady. I would suggest that the poem is much more a depiction of the heartache that comes from someone trying very much to be good and true to another person and being rejected for it.

The speaker of the poem suggests in the first stanza an ambiguity in the pronoun "They" which, although literally referring to women, is compared to wild animals - most probably deer (since deer were normally used in literature to represent women, deer by their nature resemble the graceful beauty of women, and the hunt for a deer is similar to the romantic "hunt"). These women, the speaker says, once took bread (gifts, money, love) "from his hand"; that is, though wild creatures they came right up to him willingly, risking scandal just to be with him. So what turned them from being tame, meek and gentle to being again wild and fleeing from him?

The second stanza gives a clue in its vivid description of a particular tryst. One of the speaker's paramours, a particular woman, comes to his chamber and flings herself at him romantically. This event, he suggests, was no dream, he lay "broad waking". The phrase "broad waking" suggests, though, more than just that he vividly remembers the event; it also suggests that he was not intoxicated by the power of desire but was in full command of his senses and of his courtly honor.

This is why in the third stanza he suggests that "all is turned through my gentleness / Into a strange fashion of forsaking". "Gentleness" could mean that he was gentle and kind to her; but in the court where Wyatt dwelt the word also meant courtly manners, gentlemanly manners, and thus possibly that he did NOT engage in physical love with her (contrary to most readings of the poem). Instead he gently put her off b/c he knew that such action might make her a scandal or ruin their friendship.

This may seem an odd reading of what seems an obvious description of physical intimacy but I think that is precisely Wyatt's point. Everyone, including the readers of the poem, assumes physical intimacy. After all, if prior he has had many women coming to him voluntarily why would he put off this one little deer? Doesn't the slipping of the gown suggest that they then engaged in something else? Wasn't it merely propriety of the time that prevented Wyatt from outright saying that they "did it"?

But perhaps this one little deer was more than another paramour? Perhaps after all the other women he had found someone he really loved and she rejected him b/c he wanted to prove himself as more than just another squeeze. He loved her too much to ruin the friendship through a mild physical encounter. But her reaction to his gentleness is that she thinks of him as not exciting enough, not fun enough, not newfangled enough; she wants the party life and so leaves this good man who won't "do it". This sort of reading would make the poem tragic instead of just whiny.

Furthermore, the ironic tone in the line "I have leave to go of her goodness" could suggest a certain cattiness at the jilted lover (who has engaged in physical intimacy) but could also be read as a mournful statement by someone who is in shock that their attempt to remain true has met with such tragic results. To read it thus explains the first line of stanza three where the speaker feels compelled to assert twice his full consciousness - like someone who is still reeling from a blow or who now seems to be in a dream, a landscape where she (the beloved) engages in "strange fashions of forsaking". The alliteration in third, fourth and fifth lines of stanza three suggests a spluttering or dazed cursing:

Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.

Reiteration of the "F" sound in the second part of the line and the "G" sound in the second part of the line resemble someone saying "Fie" and "God" yet being choked with emotion so unable to voice the full word; thus again suggesting an astounded or stunned speaker.


Finally, to read the poem as a suspension of love adds a great deal more tension to the work than if the speaker had consummated a relationship and was now crying into his beer. The romantic tension of a man acting nobly and expecting one outcome, receiving another, adds a new dimension to the poetic conceit. Initially the conceit seems to be that the woman is compared to a wild animal. But the real conceit of the poem, given a reading such as this, would be that noble action, virtuous is compared to loss and ignoble action is compared to gain. Noble action, the speaker suggests, makes the women wild once more; ironic b/c to bring a wild animal into tame proximity one is normally "noble" or tame & calm in action. Wild action, loss of control, passion, scares wild animals away, tame or gentle action brings them near. But the speaker, the animal tamer in this respect, has made the grave error in trying to act nobly and thus losing the wild animal that was becoming tame. Therein lies the drama and the tragedy of the poem.

(oh, and I include Jude Law b/c that's what I think the speaker would look like at the moment of the poem, not like the old picture of the revered Thomas Wyatt)

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