Please explain the poem "They Flee From Me" by Thomas Wyatt.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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 Sir Thomas Wyatt was a part of the court of King Henry VIII.  Those were dangerous times.  Wyatt was jailed for sleeping with Anne Boleyn, the infamous queen whomHenry beheaded.  He was proven innocent. 

Wyatt's poem published in 1557 (after his death), tackles this subject of sex out of wedlock. The narration employs the first person speaker who has engaged in this entertainment. Through the perspective of this speaker, "They Flee from Me" reflects on the sexual culture of Henry VIII's court. The sexual activity in Henry’s court was indiscriminate and rampant. It did not matter if either party was married unless a person was caught.

The form of the poem is called rhyme royal which means that each stanza has seven lines and follows an exact rhyme scheme.  It is written in iambic pentameter.  The rhyme scheme is ABABBCC. There are three rhyme royals in this poem. Each stanza has a specific purpose:

  • He has had many lovers, but for some reason they do not come to him anymore.
  • There was a special love that seems to haunt him.
  • She was real to him, but now he must let her go.

The speaker has been quite the lover. He is older now and possibly less desirable than he had been. This is a sixteenth century “Don Juan.” Apparently, he never locks his door because many ladies have entered in to this man’s bedroom.

This is an unusual poem for the time period because normally the man is in charge and is the great lover of women.  In this reverse poem, the ladies have dumped the man.  He is hurt and having a hard time knowing how to handle this rejection.

I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek

That now are wild and do not remember

That sometime they put themselves in danger …

And now they range

Busily seeking with a continual change.

The narrator has beautiful memories of all the lovely ladies that have entered his bed chamber. They do not come to him but seek their pleasure in other places.  Now these women forget the danger and behave rashly.

He has a special memory of one lady whom he remembers passionately kissed him and tried to please him in every way. This was not a dream.  He cannot sleep for wondering why she now behaves in such an odd way.  Because he is such a gentleman, he wishes that he could give her what she deserves.  It is unclear if he is being truthful or sarcastic. 

It is hard to judge the speaker because he gives the reader no information about himself.  Since he was supposedly involved with Anne Boleyn, it might be his incarceration in the tower that has turned the ladies away from him. In addition, this lovely lady that he wonders about may be Boleyn herself. Of course, this is just speculation.


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