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 fails to see that any attempt to domesticate such a creature will ultimately be foiled by its natural desire to remain wild. Yet the complexity of this deeply human relationship finally belies the metaphor.
Wyatt himself seems to have been involved romantically at one point with England’s future queen, Anne Boleyn, and his poems often seem to reflect life in Henry VIII’s promiscuous court. Whether that is true, this poem certainly moves away from the idealized beloved of Petrarchan convention. Influenced by and commenting on the poems of Petrarch, the love-poem tradition in sixteenth century English poetry often presents a conflict between Neoplatonic ideas of beauty—the idea that outward beauty is a reflection of inner goodness and virtue that moves others to be virtuous—and the fact that physical attractiveness stimulates carnal desires that move men and women to cast off the virtues of chastity and sexual restraint. Yet Wyatt, although he often borrows freely from Petrarch, translating and imitating his poems more or less loosely, seems unconcerned with presenting the drama of these contradictory drives. Rather, he uses the language of Petrarch to represent a society in which promiscuous sexual pursuits are a given and virtue is largely a matter of social manners, affectations, and pretensions.