They Flee from Me

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Thomas Wyatt, "They Flee From Me"

Set of Multiple-choice Questions Analyzing a Poem

Sir Thomas Wyatt's sixteenth-century lyric "They flee from me" is an enigmatic poem that pleases at least partly because it provides no final certainty about the situation it describes. Yet the poem, while in some respects indefinite and puzzling, is nevertheless quite specific in its presentation of a situation, particularly in the second stanza, and it treats a recognizable human experience--that of having been forsaken by a lover--in an original and intriguing fashion.

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

Thanked be fortune it bath 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, *
Therewithal 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 kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

*manner or style
* slender

The image developed in the first stanza is especially striking, with its suggestion of once tame and friendly animals who have reverted to wildness and will no longer risk the seemingly innocent taking of bread from the speaker's hand. This stanza establishes at once the theme of change, a change from a special, privileged condition to one of apparent mistrust or fear, and the sense of strangeness (no explanation is given for the change) that will continue to trouble the speaker in the third stanza. Strangeness is inherent in the image itself -- "with naked foot stalking in my chamber" - -- and the stanza is filled with pairs of words that reinforce the idea of contrast: "flee"/"seek," "tame"/"wild," "sometime"/"now," "take break"/"range." Most interestingly, we are never told who "they" are.

Moving from this somewhat disconcerting description of the speaker's present situation, the second stanza abruptly shifts the reader to an earlier moment in the speaker's life when "Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise/Twenty times better." There follows the description of another privileged moment, an explicitly particular moment this time, that is fixed in the speaker1s memory. Wyatt's evocation of this intimate scene, with its overtones of eroticism, is subtly lyrical in its rhythms and yet quite straightforward and direct. We are not given the speaker's reply to the lady's playful question, but the tone of the lines and the obvious fondness with which the speaker regards the incident give the description a compelling charm and authenticity.

The first line of the third stanza confirms this sense of lived experience with two colloquial statements affirming the reality of that dreamlike moment. But the realization that such an enchanting scene did in fact take place only brings the speaker back to the hard reality of the present. He blames (and at the same time absolves) himself by attributing the change in affections to his own "gentleness," but, as in the first stanza, can find no clear reason for his present condition. It is, he says, the result of a "strange fashion of forsaking," a "newfangleness" on the part of the lady. The final couplet, with its ironic and ambiguous "kindly" (although in the sixteenth century "kyndely" could...
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