Austen Saunders

Discovering poetry: Thomas Wyatt’s dangerous games

Discovering poetry: Thomas Wyatt’s dangerous games
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‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek’

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 have put themselves 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 through 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 unkindly am served,

I would fain know what she hath deserved.

This is Wyatt’s best known poem and has always been popular. In the 16th century ‘They flee from me’ was shared in handwritten manuscript collections and then in printed books. This version of the poem comes from a manuscript made in the 1530s and is different from some printed versions. This is because when the publisher Richard Tottel included the poem in a famous collection of 1557, he made some ‘improvements’. Their misguidedness shows us the real strengths of Wyatt’s poem.

Tottel regularised the metre to make the poem more ‘correct’. For example, he made the third line read ‘Once have I seen them gentle, tame, and meke.’ Our version reads ‘I have seen them gentle tame and meek’. The change is slight but important. Tottel’s version is in proper iambic pentameter (it trots along at a predictable da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum). But he achieves this by twisting the syntax around unnaturally. Not even a 16th century courtier could begin a sentence ‘Once have I seen...’ without feeling silly. He also adds an unnecessary word (‘once’) to fill out the line. The manuscript line doesn’t do this. Its metre is uneven. We rush through the first four syllables (‘I have seen them’) without any stresses but then slip into slower iambic metre when we get to ‘gentle tame and meek’. We pause over these peaceful adjectives, and our imagination dwells upon them in the same way that the speaker’s does.

Tottel also spoilt the line which reads, in the manuscript, ‘It was no dream: I lay broad waking.’ He printed is as ‘It was no dreame: for I lay broade awakyng’. Keen as always to regularise the metre, he added two extra syllables to the second half of the line (‘for’ and the ‘a-‘ prefix to ‘waking’).  But the first version is much better. In it, ‘dream’ and ‘I’ are both strong syllables, so anyone reading it aloud is forced to leave a big gap between them (this is where the caesura falls). The point of the line is to set up a contrast between the ideas of sleeping and waking and so the manuscript line is divided into two well balanced halves, with two stresses in each and four and five syllables. Tottel ruined this symmetry.

Although Wyatt’s poem may appear unpolished because of the way the metre breaks down, it actually uses these deviations for significant effects. And because he isn’t obsessed with getting ten properly ordered syllables into every line, Wyatt can use word orders and phrases which sound like the way people actually speak. This helps give the poem a great sense of authenticity. The enclosed interior space within which the action takes place (‘in my chamber’) and its private social situations heighten the sense of confession. This all makes it easy to sympathise with the speaker.

The bitterness of the final lines, however, should not be glossed over. We are implicitly invited to give our judgement as to ‘what she hath deserved’, and implicitly expected to judge her harshly. But what has she done? She may stand for Fortune, but the poem’s intimacy leads us to think she’s a woman who has left a lover who admits to (brags about?) at least twenty other women he has had. He remembers her as a fond erotic experience — not as a person he misses. Live by the sword; die by the sword. Wyatt’s speaker is a player of exciting erotic games who has been burned. Does he deserve as much sympathy as his carefully artless lines win from us?