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 5 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, 10 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?
15 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. 20 But since that I so kindely am served, I fain would know what she hath deserved.
"They Flee From Me" is without question one of the best known poems Wyatt wrote. Readers remember it. Why it seems to make such an impact is hard to say for sure, of course, but the poem's use of metaphor must be part of the answer. In the most general terms, metaphor means trying to understand one thing by thinking of another, and all poems use metaphors. A straightforward comparison is one kind of metaphor, and if you were to ask a random group of people for an example, the most frequent answer would probably be "My love is like a red, red rose."
But how and where a metaphor is used in a poem makes all the difference. Consider "They Flee From Me." The poem begins with a striking image of some kind of animals, and then within a few lines the animals seem most likely to be birds, birds that have flown away. The second stanza is quite different. It's about a man remembering a very specific moment with a woman, even remembering what she said as she kissed him. But Wyatt didn't just turn the page, or change the subject, between the first stanza and the second; he didn't put the birds over there, and the man and woman over here. And that's where we can see how he has used metaphor, because in the first stanza there is already a trace of the second: "with naked foot stalking in my chamber." To call a bird's foot "naked" is somehow out of place, but that image is perfectly at home in the next stanza, where the woman's gown is sliding off her shoulders. And in that next stanza, the trace of the previous stanza is also present -- this time in our memory of those absent birds. It's a little bit like a film, when one scene dissolves into another. Suddenly you can begin to see the next scene becoming visible behind or beneath a scene that hasn't quite ended yet. The two scenes become one. A woman who was already gone when a man remembered her presence.
Though Wyatt apparently meant to publish a collection of his poems, only a few of the poems were printed before his death (several appeared in a collection published between 1536 and 1540 entitled The Court of Venus). Most of his works circulated in manuscript among aristocratic readers. After his death, however, the printer Richard Tottel published ninety-seven poems attributed to Wyatt- along with forty attributed to Surrey and Grimald respectively, and some by "Uncertain Authors"- in a book entitled Songs and Sonnets (1557). Usually known as Tottel's Miscellany, this anthology is considered by literary historians one of the epochal books of English literature.
Wyatt's translations of Petrarch's Italian sonnets were particularly important to Tottel's stated project of showing that the English "tongue" is capable of producing poems written no less "praisworthily" than those in Latin and Italian ("The Printer to the Reader"). While praising the "weightiness of the deepwitted Sir Thomas Wyatt," Tottel quietly "emended" Wyatt's lines to make them more metrically regular. Sometimes Tottel's versions differ strikingly, in diction as well as rhythm, from those found in manuscript. One of these manuscripts, the Egerton, contains a number of poems in Wyatt's own hand as well as his corrections of poems in the hands of other scribes. This is the version we have included.
The Poet´s Life and Work
- Cecile Williamson Cary, "Sexual Identity in 'They Flee From Me' and Other Poems by Sir Thomas Wyatt."
- Stephen Greenblatt, "Power, Sexuality, and Inwardness in Wyatt's Poetry."
- Barbara L. Estrin, "Wyatt's Unlikely Likenesses: Or, Has the Lady Read Petrarch?"