Sit back and relax, folks. We're going to tell you a story. It's about a little ol' king – you may have heard of him – named Henry VIII. You might know him from Showtime's rather sensationalist show The Tudors. But that's a fictionalized version. Shmoop will give you the real scoop.
In the early 1500s in England, Henry VIII was the man. He was king, he had six different wives, and he stayed in power for almost thirty-eight years. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to give him a son (and heir), so he defied the church and got a divorce (technically it was an annulment). He then married Anne Boleyn, but didn't like her attitude and her failure to produce a male heir, so he had her executed for incest and high treason. (Are we seeing a pattern?) Then Henry married Jane Seymour, who died during childbirth. After Jane, he married Anne of Cleves, but he got sick of her and had that annulled, too. Next up was Catherine Howard; she cheated on him, and – wait for it – he had her executed. Finally, he married a wealthy widow named Catherine Parr, to whom he was married when he died at the age of 55. That's a lot of wives. Got all that?
Unfortunately, Henry VIII was not exactly the ideal husband. He cheated on most of his wives, often with women that eventually became future wives. Henry, however, wasn't the only guy engaging in such behavior, and here's where Thomas Wyatt, and today's poem "They Flee from Me" come in.
Indeed, there were lots of men in the early English Renaissance who had affairs with unmarried women. In those days, people weren't supposed to have sex until they got married, but this didn't stop people from doing it. We can't prove it, but it's a fair assumption that Thomas Wyatt (sometimes called Thomas Wyatt the Elder, to distinguish him from his son) was one of these men. At the very least, he certainly knew men like this, because as it turns out, he was a member of Henry VIII's court. At one point, he was even imprisoned, after being accused of having an affair with the Queen, Anne Boleyn. The charges were later dropped, so we'll never know what really happened.
In any case, Wyatt's poem, which was published in Tottel's Miscellany in 1557 (after his death), tackles this subject of sex out of wedlock, from the point of view of a speaker who's quite familiar with the practice. Through the perspective of this speaker, "They Flee from Me" reflects on the sexual culture of Henry VIII's court and the early Renaissance more generally. In the poem, a gentleman considers all the sexual conquests of his past (with particular focus on one unique encounter), and then wonders why it is these previously eager women no longer visit him.
Usually, this kind of love poetry focuses on guys chasing and seducing women. In those poems, men have the power, and women are at their mercy. But in Wyatt's poem, this relationship gets turned around and muddled up, leaving our speaker at the mercy of these women.
In general, women were the real victims in these situations. The consequences for having sex outside of marriage were far worse for them – just look where Catherine Howard turned up (headless, in an unmarked grave). But in this poem, the speaker comes off as the victim. He is puzzled, wounded, and upset. Wyatt's exploration of a wounded man's feelings is definitely unique, and that just might account for the poem's enduring popularity. It's striking to see a Renaissance man in a position of sexual vulnerability. Plus, it raises all kinds of questions about gender roles, sexual politics, and even love. Sounds juicy, huh? It is.
Have you ever had the yips? Say you're really great at baseball. Every time you step up to the plate, you knock one out of the park. Or at least nab yourself a base hit. But then one day, you wake up in the morning, and something doesn't feel quite right. When you get to practice that day, and step up to the plate, you just can't hit the ball, no matter how hard you try. You've got the yips, friend – the curse of athletes everywhere. Actually, it can happen to all of us. We're really good at something, anything, and then one day we just can't hack it anymore. We keep coming up short.
Well, the speaker of "They Flee from Me" has definitely got the yips. Only in his case, he's got them in the romance department. Once a great seducer, with too many girlfriends and too little time, he's now all alone. None of these ladies are interested in him anymore. He just can't seem to get a date. A lot of what the poem examines is the total bewilderment that happens after he realizes he doesn't have it anymore.
This inexplicable change of fortune is a very real feeling for our speaker, and it's one we can all relate to. Whether our best friend has suddenly given us the cold shoulder, or we can no longer sink a putt, we've probably all had the yips in one way or another. So we can all understand our speaker's desperate need to find out why. Unfortunately, sometimes, there's just no answer to that question.