Poetry Review: They Flee From Me, Sir Thomas Wyatt

4 Mar

Well I have been out for a week sick, and I’m coming back to a poem about a man who can’t get it on with the ladies anymore.  Woo-Hoo!

“They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,/with naked foot stalking in my chamber.”  Of course Wyatt is talking about the ladies, but he blames it on fickleness “busily seeking with a continual change.”  That may be part of the problem, but also there’s a sense that Wyatt is no longer desirable.  Perhaps he has aged.  He calls the women “wild” because they no longer do his bidding.  And he comperes them to birds “that sometimes put themselves in danger/To take bread from my hand.”   Which comes of as vaguely icky–like what did he do to attract these women?  Did he offer them money?  Or maybe a little less direct–gave them small gifts?  Is that the bread from the hand?  And also, what danger would a woman be in?  You know, if Wyatt was doing the “bread in hand” trick, perhaps he got himself a bad reputation–after all, he called himself dangerous.

He then remembers one woman (among many) who was special–who took off her clothes, and kissed him, and said “Dear Heart, how do you like this?”    It sounds more like locker-room talk than anything really memorable, and immediately following with “It was no dream.”  Yeah Thomas Wyatt, no dream, whatever.  What’s interesting about this is how the roles seem reversed–she caught him and then she left him.  Now that he is conquered, he is no longer somebody that’s considered attractive.

And then the final stanza–after claiming he’s been gentled–with the final couplet “But since that I so kindely am served,/I fain would know what she hath deserved.”  I think the word kindly is key here, because I take it to mean “in kind.”  So the meaning I like to read it as would be But since she treated me in the same way I have treated others, he wants to know what treatment she deserves.  I’m not sure if he wants to know how to treat her, or what he deserves because he acted the same way in the past.  It’s a rare look at sexual politics in the sixteenth century–the idea that he might deserve the same as a woman shows he’s realized that she’s a person and not some other creature like a bird.  There’s a strange sort of empathy towards women who are ostracized because of their sexuality (and there’s plenty of evidence that women who get a certain reputation have people flee from her to this day.)

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