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Irony and paradox appear frequently in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, and certainly they appear in his poems “Farewell love” and “They Flee From Me.” In “Farewell love,” the chastened speaker bids good-bye to Cupid, the mythical god associated with cupiditas, or selfish desire. Once the identity of “love” is understood in this way, the paradoxes and ironies of the poem become especially obvious. They include the following:
- To say goodbye to Cupid, the god of false love, is implicitly to say hello to Christ, the god of true love (1).
- To refer to the “laws” of Cupid is ironic, since by definition selfish desire knows no bounds (1).
- Paradoxically, although Seneca and Plato were not Christians, they lived more virtuous lives than many Renaissance Christians and were thus numbered among the “virtuous pagans” (3). Wyatt ironically refers to these non-Christians in order to teach his Christian readers a paradoxical lesson in proper behavior.
- There is an ironic pun on the word “lore” (which alludes to “lure” ).
- Ironically, “perfect wealth” does not consist of monetary riches but, as the speaker now understands, of virtue and wisdom (4).
- It is, by definition, ironic to persevere in any kind of error, let alone “blind error” (5).
- There is an ironic sexual pun on the word “pricketh” (6).
- The reference to “authority” in line 10 is ironic for the same reason that the reference to “laws” is ironic in line 1.
- The reference to lusting, in line 14, is ironic since it is lust that has caused the speaker so many problems.
Irony and paradox are even more important in “They Flee From Me.” In “Farewell, love,” the Christian message taught by the poem had been fairly explicit. In “They Flee From Me,” that message is almost entirely implied through the use of irony and paradox. Examples include the following:
- The fundamental irony of the poem is that a male speaker in a Renaissance “love” poem finally gets to know how it feels to be treated as an object of lust – an object abandoned when his physical attractiveness has declined. In other words, a male gets to know how it feels to be treated like a woman, and he doesn’t like the experience.
- The basic irony of the poem is announced in its opening two lines:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
- The speaker thinks of the women he once knew as if they were tame animals who now are wild – an ironic way of regarding any other human being.
- The speaker seems frustrated by the “change” these women are now exhibiting (7), although apparently he himself changed romantic partners in the past and displayed little lasting commitment to any particular woman.
- In line 8, the speaker ironically thanks “fortune” (probably alluding to the goddess Fortuna), even though he has now become the victim of fortune.
- In lines 13-14, the speaker paradoxically is the object of a woman’s seduction rather than (as was typically the case) a woman being the object of a seductive male.
- In the final stanza, the male speaker ironically finds himself in a position with which many a Renaissance woman could identify: used and then forgotten.
These two poems exemplify the two different ways in which Renaissance poets taught moral lessons: openly (as in the first poem) and implicitly (as in the second).
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