The Poem

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“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.”

Forms and Devices

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The poem creates its overall effect primarily through a series of striking metrical effects, vivid images, and changes in tone. The irregularity of Wyatt’s meter has led some critics to believe that many of his lyrics, including “They Flee from Me,” were written for music, and that the verses conform to a musical melody now lost rather than to an internally generated rhythm. In reading the poem as it stands, alert to the changes in line length and positions of metrical stress, one can sense the drama that Wyatt’s rhythm creates:

When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,And she me caught in her arms long and small,Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”It was no dream: I lay broad waking.

The poem also suggests the inappropriateness or irony of the metaphors which the speaker uses to describe the woman. The conceit that Wyatt borrows directly from Petrarch, the image of the woman as a deer, although sustained through the first stanza, begins to give way already in the second line’s reference to “naked foot.” This creature is no deer but a real woman, and this lapse in the conceit suggests that the image may not be entirely appropriate. Moreover, the word “stalking” in...

(This entire section contains 558 words.)

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the same line makes it unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey. In contrast to the speaker’s depiction of the woman as “meek” in the first stanza, she seems distinctly less so in the second.

Already in the first stanza, then, Wyatt gives readers the sense of a complex sexual relationship quite unlike that between a wild deer and the feeder whose gentle behavior domesticates the animal. Also, unlike the idealized woman/deer in Petrarch’s poetry—a woman whose ideal virtue and chastity make her an unattainable object of sexual desire—this woman seems very sexual indeed, more coy than meek. Although the speaker claims to have lured her, the reader sees in the second stanza that the speaker himself is the one being “lured,” the one who puts himself in danger of being abandoned.

The second stanza not only drops the conceit of the woman as a deer but also focuses on the details of the actual affair, giving readers a vivid picture of how the woman appeared, how she disrobed, how she approached the lover, and even how she spoke to him. These detailed images allow the reader to experience the affair vicariously and see firsthand her behavior toward the poet. After hearing in the first stanza how gentle the speaker was with her, one sees more forcefully how gently, and how effectively, she has lured him.

Nevertheless, the lover’s “gentle” behavior has not guaranteed his being treated in kind, and the tone of the final stanza changes strikingly from the dreamlike wonder of the second stanza to a bitter sarcasm hinted at in the first stanza’s complaint—he has not been “kindly served.” The last line’s question of what his lover might deserve for having treated him so sounds plainly vengeful. The reader is left wondering who has changed most; the woman, who has gone from “gentle, tame, and meek” to dismissive and aloof, or the lover himself, who moves from gentleness and wonder to bitterness and vengeful reproof.