I studied the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt as a university student and fell in love with it. He has been credited with introducing the sonnet form into England, and he was a politician and ambassador in the court of King Henry VIII. His portrait was painted by Hans Holbein. He was probably in love with Anne Boleyn.
Sir Thomas had various mistresses, and did also marry (I was fascinated to learn that one of his descendants was Wallis Simpson). At court he seems to have gone in and out of the King’s favour – it must have been a terribly dangerous place to work. This wonderful poem, written about 500 years ago, dramatizes life at court and his personal relationships.
They Flee From Me by Sir Thomas Wyatt
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.
This is a poem about how men and women use each other to gain an advantage or better position, only to discard them once they have served their purpose. The women of Henry’s court are portrayed as wild and even dangerous. He remembers how once they came to his room and lay with him, seeming gentle and tame, but now they are like wild beasts, continually roaming around in search of someone better.
The poem has an extraordinary frankness about sexual relations between men and women. He shows the confusion and regret that comes from ‘being dumped’, that is just as relevant today. He shows that love is not simply a beautiful mystery, but can be part of a complex and cynical power game – a kind of hunt between predator and prey. He knows his love was ‘no dream’, and highlights how very real and wonderful it was at the time, but he has to accept that she has moved on to greener pastures because of his own fall from favour.
You can listen to a few different versions of the poem here: