Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Love poetry, rather than the soggy expression of sentimentality the popular imagination may conceive it as, often deals incisively with sexual politics—that is, with the confrontation of two egos in a social relationship. “They Flee from Me” examines a sexual relationship that has ended from the male lover’s point of view. It also reveals the wounded ego that ungraciously finds the woman’s freedom a cause for complaint. Rather than ask the reader to sympathize with the lover’s hurt, however, the poem allows one to distance oneself from the speaker’s concerns in order to see that his ways of thinking about the woman and about women in general—the “they” of the first line—is itself as much to blame for the relationship’s demise as anything the woman has done.

Having opened the poem by considering the woman as a wild deer, the lover ends by deriding the woman for having remained wild and at liberty. He has failed to domesticate her, as one might very likely fail to domesticate real wild animals. One might reasonably question the lover who thinks of his beloved in such terms. The lover fails to realize that he is castigating the woman for acting naturally. If indeed she has come to him freely, and if he has enjoyed her free expression of sexual desires, how can he then deride her for enjoying the freedom to continue to seek the objects of her desire? If there is any truth to the metaphor of the deer with which he began, then the lover...

(The entire section is 472 words.)