This is one of the most famous of all of Wyatt’s poems. The speaker of the poem is a man who is now forsaken by the women who, at one time, used to seek him out, presumably for erotic encounters. In this poem, a male gets to experience how it feels to be judged as women are often judged – in terms of youth, appearance, and erotic allure. At one time the man was a desirable object of attention, but now that he has aged, women have moved on to greener pastures.
The first four words of the poem – “They flee from me” – express the speaker’s shock and surprise at this development. He cannot believe that he is no longer physically attractive, especially since, in the past, women used to seek him out, entering his bedchamber with naked feet. He compares these women to animals who were once “gentle, tame, and meek” (3) but who now are “wild” (4). At one time he felt that he could easily control these women, who readily submitted themselves to him. Now, however, “they range, / Busily seeking with a continual change” (6-7). This theme of “continual change” – otherwise known as “mutability” – is one of the most prominent themes of much medieval and Renaissance literature. Christians of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were taught that the only true source of stability in life was God. To put one’s trust in anyone or anything else was considered a major error that would inevitably lead to disappointment and disillusionment. The speaker of this poem is now learning that he cannot depend on his own flesh to remain attractive, and that he cannot depend on women to continue to find him erotically appealing. He is learning a standard lesson taught in many medieval and Renaissance texts: that change is a constant feature of earthly life, and that change is often unpleasant.
Meanwhile, in the second stanza the speaker recalls his glory days, when he was an attractive young man. He particularly remembers being visited by one woman who was herself sexually attractive and who took the initiative in one romantic encounter with the speaker. During a time when men were expected to initiate erotic encounters, the male speaker had a chance to experience how it feels to be the passive partner, the one courted rather than the one doing the courting. In various ways, the male speaker of this poem is placed into positions that were conventionally feminine: he was courted, he was sexually seduced, he was abandoned, and now he is frustrated and even angry.
In the famous line “It was no dream, I lay broad waking” (15), Wyatt omits a syllable from the standard ten-syllable line, thus creating a dramatic pause between “dream” and “I.” The pause emphasizes both halves of the line, suggesting that this highly appealing memory is still fresh in the speaker’s mind. No sooner does the speaker remember the pleasant encounter, however, than he tells us that now everything has changed (16). His tone is initially self-pitying (16), but he soon becomes sarcastic (18) and then bitter and even vengeful (20-21). One way to read this poem is to see it as a warning against merely physical desire or lust, and, therefore, as an implicit recommendation of the kind of spiritual love of God (and from God) that never changes.