Episode 14

They Flee from Me by Sir Thomas Wyatt 

Mark McGuinness reads and discusses ‘They Flee from Me’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt.

Poet

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Reading and commentary

Mark McGuinness

They Flee from Me

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

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
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 hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
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?’

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.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.


Podcast transcript

I reckon this is the first modern love poem in English. But before I try and persuade you of that, let me give you a bit of background about it.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was a courtier and diplomat during the reign of Henry VIII in 16th century England. He was also the leading light among the poets of Henry VIII’s court. Although to be honest, that’s not the biggest compliment, it wasn’t exactly a golden age of poetry. But he was certainly a very accomplished poet, and also an influential figure in the development of English poetry.

The court of Henry VIII, as I’m sure you can imagine, was a very glamorous, a very exciting, potentially a very rewarding, but also a very dangerous and uncertain place to find yourself. It was populated by the crème de la crème of English society: lords and ladies, their sons and daughters, senior members of the Church, as well as ambitious and upwardly mobile people such as Thomas Cromwell – who ended up being a key figure in the fate of Thomas Wyatt, in a way that is possibly relevant to this poem.

The court was a little bit like a Renaissance version of Celebrity love Island, which I understand is a TV game show where well known and attractive and single and successful people are put together in an enclosed space in a high stakes game of love. And what you end up with, of course, is various permutations of intrigue and courtship and romance and betrayal. And in the Tudor court, the stakes could not have been higher – because winning or losing the game of love could mean risking your social standing, your political power, or even your life.

So that gives us a bit of the backdrop to the poem. And turning to the poem itself, as usual, I’m gong to draw attention to the verse form – because poets use verse forms for various purposes and one of those is to conjure the ghosts of other poets, to allude to their subject matter and themes or sometimes to open up a dialogue with them or even an argument with them.

Now some forms become so popular and so well used that it isn’t even personal. So for instance, if you’ve got a 21st century poet writing a sonnet, so many people have written sonnets before that it’s almost like stepping onto a public highway. And Thomas Wyatt is credited as being the first poet to use the sonnet in English, but he doesn’t use the sonnet here, he uses rime royal.

And this is an example of a form that is so specific, that we can be pretty sure Wyatt means us to be reminded of one poet, and even one specific poem, in particular. And if you listened to Episode 12 last month, then you will know exactly which poet and which poem I’m talking about – that’s right, it’s Geoffrey Chaucer and his long tragic romantic tale, Troilus and Criseyde, which was the original poem written in rime royal.

Now you might be thinking: ‘Really Mark? Did he really mean us to think about Chaucer? And even if he did, what does it add the poem?’

OK, I know it might sound like a small detail, but we do know that Wyatt, like any poet of the time, was a huge fan of Chaucer’s work; to them, Chaucer was the undisputed master of English poetry, the way most poets in later ages have thought of Shakespeare. So I have no doubt that he would have expected his readers to pick up on this reference; because he was certainly not writing for publication, for the likes of you and me to read; that would have been seen as unspeakably vulgar for a nobleman. He was writing for educated lords and ladies at court, most of whom would have known him, and would have shared his enthusiasm for Chaucer.

So when they spotted the rime royal it would have made an association, a kind of a hyperlink in their minds, to the story of ‘the double sorrow’ of Troilus, a young lover who was betrayed by an unfaithful woman, Criseyde. And so the form would have been a perfect fit for Wyatt’s subject, the pain of love and the pain of betrayal.

To give you a modern analogy, a few years ago, I remember seeing an ad on TV or possibly the cinema. And it featured this young chap sitting in the barber’s chair with his face all lathered up for a shave, and the barber’s got one of these old fashioned Sweeney Todd style razor blades, and he sticks the radio on and what tune should come on the radio, but ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ by Stealer’s Wheels.

And of course if you have seen Tarantino’s movie Reservoir Dogs, you will immediately understand why the guy in the barber’s chair starts to look very uncomfortable, and I seem to recall he runs out of the barber shop before the guy comes back. If you haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say you do not want to be the chap sitting in the chair, while someone stands over you with a razor, when that particular song is playing!

OK so that’s the mood music of Wyatt’s poem, which establishes the theme of love and betrayal. But unlike Chaucer’s poem, Wyatt’s is very short. There are only three stanzas, each of which shows us a different scene. And to me, it makes me think of a triptych which was a popular form in medieval and Renaissance art, a set of three paintings or sometimes stained glass panels, where you would have three scenes or three related images designed to be viewed together.

One of the most famous painted triptychs is the one by Hieronymus Bosch that’s known as The Garden of Earthly Delights. On the left hand panel, Bosch has painted what looks like paradise; in the right hand one he’s painted hell, and God knows what the middle one is supposed to represent, it’s been interpreted as either a warning against the sins of the flesh or a celebration of sexual freedom, with possible alchemical, astrological or devotional symbolism. But whatever it is, the point is that the three images are designed to be viewed together, as a set, and the meaning of the piece is an emergent property of the interaction of the three images in the viewer’s imagination.

So what do we see when we look at Wyatt’s triptych?

Personally, I see three phases or three aspects of love. So in the first stanza, we are in the present, and the speaker of the poem is feeling very hurt and confused.

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
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

You could roughly paraphrase this as:

‘What the hell happened to me? I used to be the centre of attention. I used to be the person that they used to come running to – they used to put themselves in danger to get close to me, they used to stalk with naked foot in my chamber! And now they’ve gone and left me.’

And there’s this beautifully-judged metaphorical language, which is very suggestive of deer, or possibly birds or dogs, which are first tame and then wild, getting close enough to a man to take bread at his hand, then running away and roaming far from him. And it’s fairly obvious that the poet is using these animals as a metaphor for the behaviour of humans, almost certainly young ladies, stalking in his chamber with naked foot, and there are no prizes for guessing what’s going on in this scenario.

So we can see what he means when he talks about the ‘danger’ that the ladies — who let’s remember, were actual ladies — were risking when they came to a man’s private chamber; even if they were single this would have had severe consequences for their reputation and social standing. And in the context of the court, and its constellations of political allegiances and romantic and marital relationships, it’s safe to say that the lovers here are playing with fire.

And the word ‘danger’ didn’t just mean the the modern sense of being at risk; if you were in somebody’s danger, it meant that you were in their power. So the speaker of the poem is looking back on a time when he was the top dog, the alpha male. And he’s now bewildered by this loss of power, he’s like a stag who’s been deposed by a rival and who’s licking his wounds away from the herd.

We don’t know why he lost his power or how it happened. But given that he’s being shunned by all of ‘them’, not just a single woman, I’m picking up some loss of political power or favour that might make him a less attractive proposition, and less worth taking a risk for.

Then in the next stanza, the central panel of the triptych, he looks back at the way things used to be:

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
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?’

If ever there was a rhetorical question in English poetry, I think this is it! I mean, there is absolutely no doubt how much he liked that. And this is an incredibly vivid and surprisingly fresh and immediate description. Now, maybe it’s surprising to us because it seems so vivid for a poem that’s nearly 500 years old. To Wyatt’s first readers however, it would have been surprising and even shocking for a different reason.

So he says ‘Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise / Twenty times better’, which doesn’t mean that the past was twenty times better than the present, it means that there were more than twenty times when things were ‘otherwise’, different, to the way they are now. So in modern parlance, he’s been around a bit. And most of these encounters are evidently not worth recalling in detail, but ‘once in special’, one special occasion, stands out in his memory.

Then he gives us an unforgettable glimpse of this special woman, ‘in thin array, after a pleasant guise’, in a thin gown that was beautiful to look at, catching him in ‘her arms long and small’, long and slender, and giving him that kiss and asking the question that has no need of an answer.

And what would have been shocking for his first readers wouldn’t have been the sexual content itself, but the fact that he he doesn’t disguise it in the traditional way that you would encode such encounters in courtly love poetry, which would be to suggest that it all just happened in a dream.

There’s certainly a dreamlike quality to the whole poem. But he actually says explicitly in the final stanza: ‘It was no dream, I lay broad waking.’ In other words, he’s saying this actually happened.

And that would have been shocking for his contemporaries because the convention of courtly love was, of course, that the lady was considered to be chaste and unattainable and untroubled by the base passions that the male lover might have had. And so any kind of erotic activity was generally displaced into into dreams and fantasies. So saying ‘this actually happened’, would have placed him and the lady in considerable danger if it ever became known who she was.

And this passage is loosely based on an episode from the Roman poet Ovid’s Amores, so if he was challenged I guess he could have claimed he was just translating a classical poem, but really, that is the tiniest and flimsiest of fig leaves.

Because there’s such vividness and immediacy about this description, that it leaves me in no doubt that this really happened, that two people did meet like this, and she did throw her arms around his neck and say those words, or something very close to them, and that moment is preserved in this poem.

In Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album’, he writes about the ability of photography to capture a moment in time, and he says that photography ‘overwhelmingly persuades / That this was a real girl in a real place’. And to me this is exactly what Wyatt’s poem does, it persuades me at least that this was a real woman, a real event, and a real love.

And this is why I say that this is the first modern love poem in English, because we have a sense here of a poet wanting to preserve an actual experience, something that happened to him that was so powerful and so important that he didn’t want to let it go. He wanted to preserve it in poetry, even if it was dangerous to do so.

Now, I can’t prove this really happened. It’s down to the sheer force of the poetry. But, in terms of its modernity, for instance, this reads as much more modern than Shakespeare’s sonnets, even though they were written over 50 years later. You know, the sonnets give us an awful lot of Shakespeare’s thoughts and feelings about the young man or men or the lady or ladies that he was writing about, but we never really get anything like this glimpse of a moment in time with them, of how they looked on one particular day, or something they did, or any reported speech that is as memorable and moving as this.

So that is my case for the first modern love poem in English, but I am open to persuasion… so if you, dear listener, can think of another contender for that title, then please let me know!

This poem was probably written in the 1530s, so if you can think of an earlier poem, or even a slightly later poem that you think is even more modern than this one in the way it treats romantic love, then please send me a message via the website or indeed on Twitter @amouthfulofair. And if I’m remotely convinced by your choice and your reasons why, I will consider your suggestion for a future episode, and obviously credit you appropriately.

OK, back to Thomas Wyatt, and the third stanza, the third panel in his triptych of love:

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.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

So we’re back to the present again, but now the hurt and confusion have been replaced by bitterness and resentment. There is a real biting sarcasm here, that is typical of the jilted lover, when he says ‘I have leave to go, of her goodness’, suggesting that she thinks she’s better than he is. And he’s also being deeply ironic, when he says, ‘since that I so kindly am served / I would fain know what she has deserved’, it’s a brilliantly nasty final couplet, because he clearly feels that she has been unkind.

And if we look at the whole triptych again, and lay the three stanzas side by side, I think it’s likely that as readers we find our sympathy with the speaker getting stronger or weaker with each shift of perspective.

In stanza one, I think we feel a lot of empathy, even pity for his suffering. In stanza two we find ourselves caught up in the joy of the memory, maybe even recalling our own memories of romantic bliss. But by the final stanza I think he’s largely lost our sympathy because he’s turned into a very mean and petty person. You know, in that central stanza we really feel that he has been enlarged and even transfigured by love. But at the end the ego is back with full force, and it’s not a pretty sight.

If we shift the metaphor slightly, instead of a painted triptych, we could think of this poem as an old fashioned mirror with a central pane and two side panels, so that you can see yourself from different angles.

We’re all most comfortable gazing at the central mirror, with the familiar face-on view, particularly after we’ve got dressed up and made up, seeing ourselves the way we’d like to be seen. But the other two panels in this mirror are tilted and they show us angles that we’re not used to seeing, but maybe other people around us are more familiar with.

And one of them shows our pain and our vulnerability which is hard to look at, but actually easier than the final panel. Which shows us pettiness and nastiness, and keeping scores and wanting to get even with someone. And we like to think that the person in that final panel, that final stanza, has nothing to do with us. But if we’re honest, I think we can all recognise something of the feelings in that final stanza, even if we have hopefully only experienced them fleetingly.

And yet… I’m going to return to a theme I’ve spoken about in relation to several other poems on this podcast, including Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60 and Yeats’s poem ‘He Thinks of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved’, and also something I think is true of Troilus and Criseyde: just because a poem or a story, or even a human life has an unhappy ending that doesn’t invalidate the glimpses of joy and bliss and love we encounter in the course of the story.

And one of the things I think poetry can do more powerfully than more linear storytelling forms like novels or plays or movies, let alone history and biography, is to preserve and maintain and position that joy and that love as central to its subject. Because I think the abiding image that we take from this poem is the radiance of that central stanza.

And yes, it is framed by pain, and grief and bitterness. But I think most of us would agree that a life without joy and love would be a mistake. And if pain and grief is part of the deal, then it’s a price worth paying.


OK, everything I’ve said so far about this poem is based on what we can deduce or infer from the poem itself, and pretty uncontroversial things about the historical context of Wyatt’s life and circumstances. And normally I would stop here, because I’m generally not interested in biographical, gossipy readings of poems.

And yet… I read a very interesting biography of Thomas Wyatt, Graven with Diamonds by Nichola Shulman, where she argues that his poems, like all of the court poetry at Henry VIII’s court, were part of an elaborate and dangerous game played by the inner circle of the court, with Wyatt as the ringleader.

She says that the poems were written for the eyes of the select few lords and ladies in the inner circle, and if you were in the know, then you knew who and what the poems were about and this unlocked their meaning. So a lot of the time when we don’t really get much from these poems, that’s because they don’t make complete sense or perform their intended function outside of this original context. Which means that in Wyatt’s case we need to take account of this social context and the gossipy details, in order to unlock the true meaning of his poems.

So let’s imagine that we can slip behind the arras, the tapestry hung on the walls in one of the Tudor palaces, and walk along a secret passageway. And maybe if we are quiet, and we listen carefully, we may glimpse or overhear something of the real situation behind this poem.

And in this case, the gossip and rumour are actually pretty strong, so strong in fact, that they landed Thomas Wyatt in the Tower of London under threat of execution. So the rumour is that Wyatt had an affair with Anne Boleyn. That’s right, the Anne Boleyn who married Henry VIII, either before or even after her marriage to Henry. And in 1536, Wyatt was imprisoned alongside five other men accused of adultery with Anne. And so this rumour has led to this poem being interpreted as a coded reference to Wyatt’s affair with Anne.

Well if that’s true, then the irony of the poem deepens, because as we’ve seen, Wyatt is being ironic when he complains about how ‘kindly’ he had been served and wonders ‘what she hath deserved’. But the deeper irony is that Anne Boleyn ended up receiving a far worse fate than Thomas Wyatt. I mean, here he is whingeing about being rejected in love, but she had her head cut off.

He was threatened with execution, but while Anne and the other men were sentenced to death, he got off scot free. And it’s a little bit of a mystery why he was released. It was probably through the intervention of Thomas Cromwell, maybe because of a family connection, or maybe since because Cromwell thought of Wyatt as useful and wanted to have him in his debt going forward.

There are some versions of the story that even say Wyatt witnessed Anne’s execution from the window of his cell. It sounds a bit improbable, a bit Hollywood, but another poem attributed to Wyatt contains the lines:

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.

So he’s saying he saw something from the Bell Tower, which was the part of the Tower of London where he was imprisoned, and he never forgot it. And I think seeing your beloved beheaded with a sword would definitely be the kind of ‘sight’ that would stick in your head day and night.

OK. I’m aware that there are an awful lot of conjectures stacked on top of each other here. But if Thomas Wyatt was in love with Anne Boleyn, and if he did have an affair with her, and if ‘They flee from me’, is about Anne, and actually, whether or not he actually saw her executed, he would certainly have been told about it very shortly afterwards. And so in this scenario I can’t help wondering whether these lines came back to haunt Wyatt when he learned Anne’s fate:

But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Because in the event he was served far more kindly than her. And when he came to know what happened to her, he probably wished he hadn’t. And you’d have to have a heart of stone to think that Anne got what she deserved.

 


They Flee from Me

by Sir Thomas Wyatt

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
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 hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
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?’

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.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.


Sir Thomas Wyatt

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt by Hans Holbein

Sir Thomas Wyatt was a courtier, diplomat and poet who was born in 1503 and died in 1542. His father was a trusted advisor to the Tudor kings Henry VII Henry VIII, and Thomas followed his father into service at court. He was entrusted with many diplomatic missions to the courts of Europe. He benefited from the patronage of Thomas Cromwell, but when Cromwell fell from favour, Wyatt was briefly arrested for treason in 1541. He managed to regain the king’s trust, and was on a diplomatic errand for Henry when he died of a fever.

Wyatt’s poems were circulated among his private circle but not published until after his death. He was an influential poet who experimented with European verse forms, and is credited with introducing the sonnet to English poetry. 


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