They Flee From Me

After wandering through the 1950s, exploring from the bohemian side to the science fiction which arose in that period, I felt it was fitting to return to the dawn of Modern English. By Modern English, I do mean the London dialect which is now Standard English, the start of which is reckoned tobe Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. So, I come to (near) its beginning with Thomas Wyatt’s poem, They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek. Wyatt lived during the reign of Henry VIII, and was, at various points, a court favourite, though he was always roaming about, and was imprisoned due to an allegation that he once had an affair with Anne Boleyn. Wyatt served as a diplomat for Henry VIII, both to the kingdom of Aragon and to the Pope, and, after being imprisoned and then released for treason, died of disease. His poetry has shifted in favour since his writing; for awhile he was the greatest poet of his age, then people loathed him for his irregular metre; next, they claimed his metre wonderfully inventive, if one read it correctly. These days, he floats around, and is generally held to be decent enough, and a major influence on the Elizabethan sonneteers, one of their few purely English ones, it is reckoned.


Anyhow, we turn now to the poem. It’s a fairly classic poem, nothing too inventive in its content: it is about an ex-lover of the poet, and he remembers her and wonders what has become of her. It is, as a side note, rumoured to be about Anne Boleyn; just a tid-bit for the dear reader. The first stanza sets the scene for the poem, each pair of lines stating when they were lovers, and then responding with the present. My favourite line of this stanza, and, indeed, the whole poem is the first two lines:

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I find it hard to say why; I suppose I enjoy the easy assonance of the first line, and how well it establishes the scene of the poem. The second line ties well with the first, plus I have always enjoyed ‘stalking in my chamber.’
The second stanza is more specific, describing an enounter with the lover. Another pleasant stanza, and another pleasant image. Plus, I love the end – ‘Dear heart, how like you this?’
The third stanza pulls the whole poem into the saddening, but altogether almost only nostalgic remembrance without pain, ending. For discussion’s sake, I must reprint a  the stanza:
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned through 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 kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
The ‘strange fashion of forsaking’ is a fantastic description, and the enjambment, breaking ‘through my gentleness’ into the sorrow of the second line, is brilliantly done. The reader is pulled from a sweet recollection of the second stanza, to the final stanza, where that which was no dream is turned into that forsaken. Again, the ‘I have leave to go of her goodness’ couples well with her ‘to use newfangleness’ (plus, I just love the word ‘newfangleness’). The ending captures the poem well, and brings the question to the fore: is the line ‘I so kindly am served’ a sarcastic reflection of what the breakdown of their love has brought him, or is it as honest as it seems? I, personally, am inclined to the bitter sarcasm, but that is my opinion.
So, that’s one of the classic poems of Thomas Wyatt, whom is deemed one of the best poets of Henry VIII’s time. It is a great poem; though it is nothing shocking or incredibly done, it is simple and beautifully enjoyable. Wyatt had faults as a poet, but he could truly construct a great poem, as this shows. The emotions he brings out, the nostalgic and sorrowful remembrance coupled with the pain of the third stanza, is well done. I quite enjoy Wyatt, and I hope you do also.

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