They flee from me that Sometime did me Seek
They flee from me that Sometime did me Seek
British Library Egerton MS. 2711, fol. 26v; cf. Richard Harrier, Canon (1975): 131-32.
in special: especially. Back to Line
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Complaints by a male abandoned by his mistress are seldom as thoughtful as Sir Thomas Wyatt's "They flee from me." In the Henrician Renaissance, women lacked most of the legal, social, and sexual rights we have taken increasingly for granted since the 1920s. Married Henry VIII enjoyed his mistress, Elizabeth Blount, by whom he had a male child, and seduced many other women, including the Boleyn sisters, before he eventually divorced Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne. His court followed the king's example with women. Courtiers, like Henry, wrote love lyrics in pursuing a woman's sexual favours, but once seduced, unmarried women lost their power. Few men would complain, in lyrics, about being rejected by someone they had successfully bedded because they usually were fully prepared to move on to new sexual partners and positions.
Wyatt's personal lyric, uttered reflectively to what seems an intimate friend, reverses the usual male-female roles in sexual liaisons. Promiscuous at first, in the opening stanza, giving "bread" to the mouths of many who sought him out in his chamber, Wyatt himself is "caught" (12) in the second stanza by one of the "wild" ones he used to tame there. Before, those that sought him out came with "naked foot" (2), vulnerable and complaisant. They ate at his hands. Then came one who unrobed herself and brought a kiss down to his mouth as he "lay broad waking" (15). The man to whom women had once lowered themselves to take their nourishment at his hand now appears prostrate before a woman who lets her thin gown drop from her shoulders, naked again, as before, but this time standing over him and bending herself down to him. Her power over him comes out in her questioning, "dear heart, how like you this?" This time, she is the pleasure-giver.
The poem centres on this moment, a male sexual fantasy. It is one thing for a man to take what he wants from diminished creatures, but quite another to have the seduced orchestrate her own sexual service. To be desired for the "bread" he has to offer pales besides being treated as the bread itself. Even as a male seducer becomes a seduced, the female who put herself "in danger" before takes his former power. This exchange in place occasions the change that Wyatt introduces in the first line. The seeker now leaves him for other interests, for "newfangleness" (19).
In the third stanza Wyatt describes this reversal, not as betrayal, but as courtesy. It is a "strange fashion of forsaking" (17) -- foreign and unEnglish -- because she takes her cue from his own "gentleness." Before, when she among many others came to his chamber and put themselves "in danger," whether of rejection, rape, or love longing, he gave them "bread" by hand. His promiscuous gentleness tamed them, in turn, to be "gentle." Later, he submitted to his mistress's own advances when, "sweetly," she kissed him; and this time he, not she, acquiesced. When she gives him "leave to go of her goodness," permission for them both to do what he had done many times himself, that is, to practice "newfangleness" and play the field (19), she mirrors his gentle nature. Yet this leads Wyatt to pose the poem's closing ethical problem: "since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she hath deserved." Does her abandonment of him merit a like gentleness and sophistication because he is fundamentally responsible for laying down the rules of their relationship? or does Wyatt deserve the sympathy owing to a victim, and his mistress the contempt of a woman loose in more than her gown? Love affairs are rife with insoluable difficulties. Ending as it does, should we say that Wyatt's poem leaves us without an answer?
If poetry were just information, we should be dissatisfied, but Wyatt carefully deploys language and metaphor to imply what cannot be stated. His choice term "kindly" (20) means, not only "considerately" (possibly with an ironic undertone), but "according to nature or species." The first stanza describes the women that sought his favours simply as "they" and "them," without hinting that they are either feminine or human. Other words applied to them, such as "stalking," "tame," "wild," "take bread at my hand," and "range," belong to a world of creatures rather than people. In Early Modern English, Wyatt appears to be describing birds, either pigeons or birds of prey. The Henrician court hunted routinely with falcons and hawks, which were controlled by means of jesses, slips of leather around their legs, and whose feet were called "stalks" (OED "stalk," sb. 1, 3). The verb "seek," as well, has hunting associations. Birds "with naked foot" were thought tame, unlikely to fly away except on command, but something happened to make them wild and return to their unpredictability.
Not only do the birds of the first stanza become the woman of the second, but she becomes the hunter, catching (12) Wyatt the "dear heart" (which may be a play of words on the noblest game, the "hart"). The male hunting man is thus transformed into a submissively gentle prey. Both man and woman, in turn, become less than human. In their natural world, questions of ethics, responsibility, and deserving do not apply. That is what Wyatt wants to know and cannot bring himself to admit. Changeability is a characteristic of the material world under the moon, not of the morally charged spirit. He has been treated naturally. She is not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility.
In his poetic revision of Wyatt's poem (1991), Gawin Ewart turns Wyatt's birds into "chicks" and calls his forsaking mistress a "bitch." This transformation reflects late 20th-century sexual mores and uses a vocabulary of human character with which Wyatt would not have been familiar. A 16th-century lover, bewildered in several senses, has given away to our new man, "emotionally underpriviliged" in a woman's world.Back to Line