Thomas Wyatt's "They Flee from Me" is an enigmatic poem, written in the sixteenth century. The central metaphor is that of wild birds, which have occasionally fed from the speaker's hands. Now, the birds have flown. Because the metaphor of wild birds to describe the human spirit is a common one, it is relatively easy to understand that the narrator recounts an unrequited love with a woman who has a flighty heart. The overall tone of the poem is bitter, an emotion that grows progressively strong throughout the 21-line poem. The speaker recollects the brief relationship with a mixed sense of longing, confusion, and loneliness. However, "They Flee From Me" is not about one relationship, but many. The speaker describes a string of sexual encounters, which is why the titular pronoun is "they," and not "it" or "she." Because the poem progresses from dreamy reflection through sentimental longing, onto bitter sarcasm, it is clear that the speaker has been unlucky in love and therefore harbors misogynistic feelings.
Wyatt's poem uses a well-constructed rhyme scheme and a fairly even but not rigid rhythm. The rhyme scheme follows the general pattern of ABABBCC, followed by DEDEEFF and so on. There are three stanzas of seven lines each. Most of the lines contain ten syllables, but there is some variation in metric feet. The use of a consistent rhyme scheme and rhythmic pattern anchors the viewer's attention, and the musicality of the poem makes it catchy.
The three stanzas differ from one another, and follow a course that mirrors the relationship that is being described. The progression of the poem reflects the changes in the speaker's heart, and especially the changes in the relationship. The first stanza is the most wistful of all, as he recalls the relationship and his lover using the metaphor of the birds. Using natural imagery makes the relationship itself seem natural, and thus the poet manages to capture the reader's attention and garner sympathy with the narrator. Using long sentences, the poet creates a languishing first stanza that is also the most mysterious of the poem. It is not even immediately clear whether or not the man is speaking about birds. The biggest clue to the character of the "wild" creatures is that "sometime they put themselves in danger / To take bread at my hand," (lines 5-6). However, there are other animals that could be taking bread out of hand, such as a deer. Regardless of exactly what animal is being used in the metaphor, the overall concept is one of brief encounter with something wild. The speaker harbored hope that the wild creatures would become permanently tame: which is a clear metaphor for his wanting to tame a wild woman. The second and third stanzas show with utter certainty that the speaker has failed. "They Flee From Me" tells the story of how the relationship began, how it developed, and how it ended. The reader also learns of the impact the relationship had on the speaker, who seems bitter about love and romance.
The poem opens with the ambiguous pronoun "they." Who or what are they? More importantly, why does Wyatt choose to use a plural pronoun in a metaphor that ultimately defines his relationship with a woman? At this point in the poem, it becomes clear that Wyatt might not be speaking of his relationship with one woman but rather, of all women. If so, the bitterness inherent in "They Flee From Me" makes more sense. The speaker has been spurned not once, but repeatedly. The phrase "they flee from me" sounds like a self-pitying man bemoaning the fact that women run from him almost as soon as they get to know him. At the same time, the speaker seems to have a false confidence. He believes that the metaphorical creatures -- be they female people or birds -- were "stalking" him in his bedroom (line 2). The speaker also imagines the women were once "gentle tame and meek," which comes across as a sexist statement because the speaker obviously preferred the state of affairs before they changed to "range" (line 3; line 6). Diction, such as the phrase "busily seeking" is intriguing because the speaker has no suggestions as to what the women might be looking for; he only knows they are content with "continual change," (line 7).
The first line of the second stanza suggests that the speaker has at some level made peace with the situation because he states, "Thanked be fortune," (line 8). Yet the narrator immediately follows the statement of gratitude with "it hath been otherwise / Twenty times better," indicating that he has a hard time concealing his bitterness (lines 8-9). The remainder of the second stanza is consumed with a sensual scene in which the object of his desire seduces him, and is seduced by him. She catches him in her arms, in a significant scene that tells as much about the speaker as about his lover. If the woman does the catching, then it is he who is constantly falling in love. Ironically, the word "fall" is used to describe her: in particular the way her negligee "falls" from her shoulders. The narrator possibly resents her "sweet" and "soft" seductive nature, for she speaks directly to his "heart," (lines 13-14).
As far as the pacing of the poem is concerned, the second stanza represents the mounting climax. The climax is both figurative and literal, because the speaker describes a sex scene just as his emotions start to build. He speaks of the sexual encounter using brief phrases that actually end up comprising one long run-on sentence.
The third stanza is the most bitter of the three, and includes a fair bit of sarcasm. For instance, the second-to-last line of the poem reads, "But since that I so kindly am served, / I fain would know what she hath deserved," (lines 20-21). Emphasis in line 20 is on the word "kindly." The word "kindly" can be taken in a number of different ways. As the synonym for "gently," which would certainly echo the word "gentleness" used a few lines earlier in the same stanza, the sarcasm oozes from the speaker. There may be a double meaning to the word, though, as "kindly" could just as well connote the meaning of "in kind," or reciprocity. The last line of "They Flee From Me" is even more mysterious than the first line. "I fain would know what she hath deserved" can be divided into two distinct parts. The first part is self-reflective: the reader is stating that he does not know all that goes on in the woman's life and therefore cannot assume too much about her destiny. The second part of the phrase, "what she hath deserved," is the bitter element in the stanza (line 21). The speaker seems almost to curse his lover, as if to say that she gets what she "deserved," (line 21).
Although a sense of bitterness and frustration pervades "They Flee From Me," the speaker does not regret having his affairs. What is palpably lacking in the poem, though, is a sense of hope. There is no imagery of babies, or eggs, or anything that would remotely suggest that the speaker has learned something from his encounter. The speaker dwells upon his losses, and seems resigned to a fate that consists of unrequited love and fleeting romance. Perhaps he prefers it to be so; like a perpetual bachelor who is himself "busily seeking with a continual change," (line 7).
Sexual imagery pervades the poem, in diction such as "wild," "danger," and "kiss." The sexual imagery solidifies the theme of the poem as being about fleeting romance, as opposed to deep, emotional, respectful love. The speaker is not referring to a love lost, but rather, to a love that was never developed in the first place. He tries to blame "them," for fleeing, changing, and ranging about seeking greener pastures. Ultimately, though, the reader ends up sympathizing more with the women than with the bitter speaker. The speaker comes across as being burdened by his own self-pity. He wants the reader to feel sorry for him, but he has not done anything that would warrant genuine empathy. In fact, the narrator admits that women "put themselves in danger" when they visit him and have sex with him. He has nothing specifically to say about any of the women he is with, other than to recall a "loose gown" that could be an underhanded insult about a woman's "loose" sexuality. The sarcasm with which the speaker refers to his women engenders no sympathy from the reader.
The poet employs poetic devices like alliteration sparingly, as in "fashion of forsaking," (line 17). This line, "fashion of forsaking" also parallels the speaker's perception of the women's fickle hearts, as the word "fashion" connotes a passing fancy or trend. He also belittles the choice his women make by calling their dismissal of him "strange," (line 17). The speaker does…