Poem of the Day: ‘They Flee from Me’

Thomas Wyatt’s poem speaks of a woman’s unexplained turn away from her lover.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Michael Dahl: 'Portrait of a Woman,' detail. Via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) is both too-little and too-well known since the 20th century restored him to a high place in the canon of English poetry. He was never entirely forgotten, credited with introducing several Romance-language verse forms into English, particularly the sonnet, with such work as “Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind” and “My Heart I Gave Thee, Not to Do It Pain” (which the Sun ran as a Poem of the Day this past June). Meanwhile, as a courtier for Henry VIII, Wyatt rose and fell in the maelstrom of British royal politics, never knowing whether he was to be imprisoned or rewarded for his public work, particularly his diplomatic missions to the Europe. 

Modern critics looked to him, however, less as a historical curiosity and more as a figure for whom the creation of English poetry was still new. He could use the language in a way that poets a hundred years later — after, say, work by Shakespeare (1564–1616), Donne (1572–1631), and Milton (1608–1674) — could not. Genius had gleaned too many of the naive and original possibilities of the language and closed possibilities for unself-consciousness.

Those critics were not wrong, but the establishment of Wyatt in English anthologies has made much of his poetry familiar, weakening the freshness with which it was first reencountered. We need to look again at his work simply as poetry, shaking from the history of its reception and recognizing its skill and insight. “They Flee from Me,” today’s Poem of the Day, contains three seven-line stanzas of pentameter, rhymed ababbcc. Playing on the metaphor of a woman as a wild creature, the poem speaks of a woman’s unexplained turn away from her lover.

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild, and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be Fortune it hath been otherwise,
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array, after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
And therewith all sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned, thorough my gentleness,
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go, of her goodness,
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindely am served,
I fain should know what she hath deserved.

___________________________________________ 

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul. 


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