“They Flee from Me” is a short lyric poem of twenty-one lines divided into three rhyme royal stanzas—seven lines rhymed ababbcc. As in many of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s lyrics, the first-person voice of the poem, not Wyatt himself but a dramatic persona whose impressions the reader needs to examine critically, complains of a beloved who has left him for another lover.
The opening stanza depicts the beloved as a deer—a conceit or extended metaphoric image, which Wyatt and later English poets borrowed from the sonnets of the fourteenth century Italian poet Petrarch. Wyatt compares the woman to a wild deer who once risked danger to feed from the hand of the poet and so grew tame under his gentle charity. Yet now, apparently forgetful of that time and the poet’s gentleness, the deer ranges wildly, seeking “food” elsewhere. That the woman continually seeks new sources of this food suggests that she has become promiscuous.
In the second stanza, as the poet remembers times past when his beloved acted differently toward him, the poem takes on a wistful tone: The poet remembers with pleasure (“Thanked be Fortune”) that there were twenty such times when she desired him, and he recalls one time especially, when she actively sought and seduced him, rather than he her. The poet recalls the scene in vivid, sensual detail, describing his lover’s appearance and actions, and he ends the stanza with a direct quotation of her gentle and playful words to him.
The third and final stanza opens by commenting on the dreamlike sequence of events described in the previous stanza. The poet’s wishes and desires were gratified so fully that the experience seemed like a dream—but it was not: He was wide awake; it really happened. The poet’s tone, however, becomes increasingly bitter as he compares that time with the woman’s present behavior. Ignoring him now, the woman seeks other lovers, indulges in “newfangleness” and a “strange fashion of forsaking”; that is, she has become inconstant and promiscuous. One hears the speaker’s bitterness most strongly in his suggestion that she has rejected him because of his gentleness. In the sarcasm of the final lines, he asks rhetorically how she may deserve to be treated since she has treated him “so kindly.”