Who flees from Wyatt?

As a way to keep up with and revisit meaningful poems, I sometimes grab poetry anthologies, willy-nilly, and dip through them, reading to remember. I have on my desk, now, eight of these. There’s nothing special about this impromptu collection; they were at hand:

Amis, Kingsley. 1978. The Faber popular reciter. London: Faber and Faber. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4932677
Baumgaertner, Jill P. 1990. Poetry. San Diego, [Calif.]: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/20966790
Harmon, William. 1998. The classic hundred poems: all-time favorites. New York: Columbia University Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/37955493
Hollander, John. 1996. Committed to memory: 100 best poems to memorize. New York: Academy of American Poets. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/35959019
McClatchy, J. D. 1990. The Vintage book of contemporary American poetry. New York: Vintage Books. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/21338734
Nims, John Frederick. 1992. Western wind: an introduction to poetry. New York: McGraw-Hill. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/23976731
Pound, Ezra, and Marcella Spann. 1964. Confucius to Cummings, an anthology of poetry. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/335113
Williams, Oscar. 1958. The pocket book of modern verse; English and American poetry of the last hundred years from Walt Whitman to Dylan Thomas. New York: Washington Square Press. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4561893

Three of these (Amis, Harmon, and Hollander) include Sir Thomas Wyatt‘s “They flee from me”, a poem I have read many, many times. I know that it is great; but it has, however, shaped both my “ear” and my poetics–my notions of what a good poem should do, how it should work, and how it should sound. That is, “They flee from me” is a standard of English verse.

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.

Having always thought of it as a great poem, I was surprised, this time, therefore, to discover that the poem is not my friend. In fact, I have for it a kind of animosity. I think this animosity has always been there … at least, it must have begun no later than my first dozen-or-so readings of the poem. Today, I read the poem as if encountering some kind of hostile agent. Why should it take so long for me to realize this? After twenty-five years of reading “They flee from me”, I now discover this growing discomfort for Wyatt’s little poem? The mind says “great poem” (and it is), but the instincts say “bastard!” Have I come to an age in which I am willing to concede to affections? Or have I merely been a slow reader and a poor listener? I do not know. I doubt that I have the machinery to know.

But, “They flee from me” is a great poem. Like everyone else, I marvel at the internal and slant rhyming, the irregular meter, the ironies and the puns. I appreciate the captor taken captive, emancipated unwillingly; the progressive betrayals, each stage grown worse (how was it ever “twenty times better”?); but most of all, the puns … heart, kindly, served, fain. And I’m all for the nudity; perhaps, only Robert Herrick writes a striptease better.

As artful as “They flee from me” may be, a great poem of a jilted courtier, Wyatt nonetheless, got exactly what he deserved–scorned. I don’t feel sorry for him at all. In this poem, he’s nothing more than a pervy stalker. And what’s worse, he whined when his mistress grew tired of his infantile neediness. “Dear heart, how like you this?”: Yuck.

Perhaps I will change my mind and read the poem newly in decades to come–read it with “newfangleness”; but the whole experience (an awakening to a distaste for a standard) has me wondering about what other great poems I might truthfully dislike. Making the list: probably much of Shakespeare, there’s a meanness to the bard; plenty of Yeats; Frost, yes; and all of Wallace Stevens, perhaps. On the other side, I’d guess there are poets and poems I thought I didn’t like, but indeed I do. Where are these poems? And how will I know to reread (since I once so kindly served) them, now, for their goodness?

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Hans Holbein the Younger. 1535-37.


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