Somewhere in the early 16th century, a member of the English royal court Thomas Wyatt wrote a love poem, or rather a poem of lost love. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, no one knows if it’s autobiographical, but ever since I first read it as a teenager I’ve thought it feels real. Maybe after this many centuries that’s good enough.
If so, then “They Flee From Me” is an example of the presentness poetry gives us. Begin reading (or listening), as I did decades ago, and one moves through the rich conceit of the poem’s first stanza where the poet fancies he’s feeding some animal, likely a deer kept for private sport hunting in some rich nobleman’s deer park. If one knows that situation, then the tender animal lured inside by the kind-seeming human offering it food may put one in a piteous mood. Poor thing. It doesn’t know what the situation is, what the structure is of a nobleman’s deer park. You’re there to show that nature can be purchased and ruled — and you’re there to be killed at will.
Although a later engraving, this is thought to be an accurate portrait of Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt also introduced the sonnet to English language poetry.
Poetry and its metaphors can do that, it can be clever, show us, if we pay attention, something we otherwise might have overlooked. What if we move on to the next stanza? The poem’s speaker seems to make a shrug at the first stanza’s piteous situation. Then three lines in, something else vivid happens. We may never have visited a royal deer park or lived in the particulars of Tudor royal prerogatives, but something occurs that we, now, here, may have exact sense memories of. It’s no longer a deer now, and the hands are no longer someone feeding the doomed deer kept in half-natural captivity. The hands are a woman’s. She’s embracing a lover, loosening her clothes. Anyone who knows desire knows this scene and may feel the ardor, today as in the 16th century. Like the deer being hand-fed, it feels tender, feels mutual — but that first stanza has warned us.
Last time we had Emily Dickinson bid goodbye to some fairy creature or garden animal under the stars with a line that would one day be used by Bob Dylan: “You’ll go your way, and I’ll go mine.” Wyatt’s final stanza — is that a shrug at the parting or a generous admission of non-ownership of the two lovers to each other? We are left with final lines after we know the lovers have parted ways. The poem’s speaker tells us they feel “kindly served,” and what does she deserve — as fond a set of memories perhaps? If so, we can leave this poem casually and think kindly of long-separated loves in our lives with good wishes for theirs.
But the poet went to the trouble of setting up the captive deer in the first stanza. Do they mean to go beyond a pun of deer and hart and dear and heart? Are we still to liken the poet’s situation (or the woman’s) to that hand-fed deer as they wrap things up. “Nice park, nice grub, and they bring it right to you!” that deer might have thought, but we know why the deer are kept. If we leave the fancies of poetry and move onto the lives that give it blood, I’ll end with one supposition that’s been made about “They Flee From Me” — that the poem is autobiographical for Wyatt, and that the woman is Anne Boleyn. Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s doomed queens, was executed explicitly for, well, slipped gowns and how like you this. Wyatt was also arrested and imprisoned in this matter, but his connections with the King’s fixer Thomas Cromwell trumped the charges.
Accept that, and the final two lines are then not so much a graceful farewell, but a deeply bitter assessment of deadly political power.
My music today could not be made in Wyatt’s time. I used acoustic guitar while the lute was more Tudor style. Then there’s a conventional cello part, but on top of that is an unusually articulated viola part which I meant to sound more like South-Asian bowed strings. To match that viola, there’s a tambura and harmonium underlayment in the music. To hear my performance of “They Flee From Me” you can use the player below, or if you don’t see that, you can use this highlighted link that will open a player if you don’t see one.