Old Poem Revue #1 by John King

They Flee From Me

Who wants to discuss old poems?

I’ve decided that on Thursdays we here at TDO should try to share pre-twentieth century poems that have stuck with us.

I’ll begin with this 1535 bluesy verse from a sixteenth century courtier:

They Flee From Me by Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

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;
Therewithall 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.


In the first stanza, women are treated like wild animals toying with being tame—in a scenario that suggests that the speaker should be considered dangerous, poor fella.

In the second stanza, he brags that twenty women have stayed with him, though if they stayed, then where are they? Did they all stay? Are they in his basement? But the woman in a nightie who got naked and grabbed him in her arms and kissed him has him feeling bitterly nostalgic.

In the final stanza, he promises he wasn’t dreaming—which I didn’t think he was until he insisted that he wasn’t.

Hold on, though. Is that really the moment that he cannot let go: a kiss, a term of endearment, a shameless request for romantic feedback? I don’t need Thomas Wyatt to dabble in pornography, but he’s clearly already writing in bad taste, so why not? Or maybe he is full of regret because the naked woman did not get beyond coitus interruptus with him. Maybe he orally pleasured her and then she, sated, left? That would make sense of the “strange fashion of forsaking” in the final stanza. In that case, this may be the earliest letter on file written to Dan Savage. But I think it more likely that she didn’t come when next he called. His tallied 20 other lovers were presumably dropped by Tommy, though the whole this-is-not-a-dream thing makes me think that number is probably inflated by at least 20 lovers.

The turn in this overlong sonnet is that life isn’t fair. Hmmmm.

I read this in a survey of Brit Lit class as a college sophomore, and I certainly felt sensitive and bereft like our fair poet above, though the thing has the stink of toxic masculinity to it now, although the internal contradictions are fairly interesting, though maybe as an exhibition of neuroses. I don’t blame him for having a foot fetish:

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.

The iambic pentameter bounces from the start, but the poem doesn’t really live up to that—the overture contains the opera here. What did these (probably imaginary) women see in him? What did he see in them? In her? This is kind of a disappointing poem about the power of sex. (Unlike Aphra Behn’s amazing poem about the power of sex, “The Disappointment”). Wyatt thrilled to the surprise of meeting, that confrontation of desire, that revelation of a secret self—but without a woman as a mirror, he didn’t really have much of a self to talk about.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.