Study Guide

They Flee from Me Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Just When You Thought Your Rhyming Days Were Over

    If you took a peek at our "Form and Meter" section, or heck, even if you've just read the poem, you're already well aware of the rhymes in this poem. The end of every single line has a partner in rhyme. It's a regular rhyming riot.

    But did you notice that there are also a ton of internal rhymes, too? These lines are often less obvious to us readers because internal rhymes occur within individual lines themselves. It's not about the big "ta-da!" that the end rhyme gives. It's a more subtle, musical effect.

    Let's take the first line, for example:

    They flee from me that sometime did me seek.

    We've gone ahead and bolded and italicized the rhymes for you, just so they really pop. And lo and behold, there are four – count 'em, four – internal rhymes, which are those repeated "e" sounds you hear. This particular kind of internal rhyme comes from repeated vowel sounds, and we call it assonance.

    Internal rhyme occurs yet again in lines 12 and 13:

    And she me caught in her arms long and small;
    Therewithall sweetly did me kiss

    See how that "all" sound from the end of line 12 carries over to the beginning of line 13 in "Therewithall"? Neat, huh?

    Of course these are just two examples, and you might find many more in the poem. You'll also find a lot of alliteration, or repeated vowel sounds at the beginning of words, like "softly said" (14) and "fashion of forsaking" (17). Plus, there are the relentless rhymes at the end of the lines.

    In a sense, when you read it aloud, this poem sounds like a big old echo chamber. Practically every sound you hear bounces back to you in one way or another. This has the impressive effect of making our speaker seem supremely worried. All these repeated sounds make him sound almost obsessive, as if he can't get this scene with this mysterious woman, and his newfound lack of promiscuity out of his noggin. The sounds are beautiful, sure, but they're also strangely desperate.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title of the poem, "They Flee from Me," is also the first line of the poem. Of course when we first read it, we're not sure who "they" are, and why they're fleeing from our speaker, but don't worry, we'll figure it out soon enough.

    And indeed we do. In the second stanza, it becomes clear that the "they" of the title refers to the women. The speaker is puzzled at the fact that he is no longer a total stud. The ladies just don't come around like they used to (they flee). 

    Flee is just about the perfect word choice. Really, it's awesome. Why? Because for the whole first stanza, and even some of the second, our speaker is comparing these lovely ladies to wild animals, who "range" and "take bread" at his hand. Fleeing totally fits with all this animal behavior. It's as if these women have spotted a lethal threat (that we can't see) and their fight-or-flight response has kicked in. Their choice? Flight, of course.

  • Setting

    The speaker tells us straight up, hey everyone, we're in "my chamber" (2). So there's no doubt about it, were in this dude's bedroom, where, we have to say, there is an awful lot going on. Or at least there used to be. In fact, it used to be a revolving door of female visitors. It used to be quite the hot spot. But now, it seems, things are pretty quiet, leaving our speaker alone with his thoughts.

    It might help to zoom out a bit and talk about the larger setting for this poem. In sixteenth-century England, there were strict social rules about sex, women, and just who could enter whose bedroom. The fact that these female visitors were "stalking" (2) in the first stanza tells us that these late night visits were not exactly acceptable. And the fact that these women "put themself in danger" (5) by taking "bread at [his] hand" (6) tells us that in terms of sexual politics, it's the men who hold all the power.

    But something seems to be changing about this dynamic, particularly in the second stanza. Now the woman's the one with the power. She walks right into his bedroom and takes charge. Given the expectations of a woman in those times, it's no wonder our guy doesn't quite know what to make of her. In a world where men hold all the power, our speaker wonders, how exactly do you treat a woman who's bold enough to seduce you?

  • Speaker

    This guy's a total stud. Or at least he used to be. Now he's having a bit of a dry spell, and his dance card has gone empty, so to speak. But why?

    Well, he seems a bit smitten with one woman in particular – the mysterious female of stanza two. She makes our previously bold, take-charge speaker go weak in the knees. In fact, this particular incident seems like a pretty important one, if we want to understand just what makes our speaker tick.

    For one thing, it totally confuses him. He's bewildered by it. He even has to reassure himself (and us readers) that it wasn't a dream. He calls this woman's departure "strange" and basically cops to the fact that he has no idea, whatsoever, how to treat her, or how the world should treat her for that matter.

    So we know our guy's confused, that he once was very promiscuous, and that he's a little bit smitten with one lady in particular. But is there anything else we might guess about this dude? Not much, as it turns out – not his name, age, or even what he looks like. But frankly, for this poem, none of that really matters. We've already got the essentials. For the issues of sexual politics that this poem raises, those are all you need to know.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    Tree Line (4)

    "They Flee from Me" has some weird words ("therewith," "newfangleness") and sometimes the sentences are odd, but that's expected in something that's over four hundred years old! It is a bit confusing at first because we can't really figure out whom the speaker is talking about, but, as the poem progresses, everything becomes clear. So break out your sixteenth-century dictionary, be ready to flip around some words and phrases, and – with a little help from Shmoop – you'll be golden.

  • Calling Card

    Love and Pain

    Thomas Wyatt is kind of a big deal: he's often credited with introducing the sonnet into English (a 14-line poem). Why? Well, he translated the Italian poet Petrarch's famous sonnets into English. It turns out Petrarch wrote a lot about unrequited love, and so it seems like Wyatt had this on the brain.

    Many of Wyatt's poems are about this very topic, and "They Flee from Me" is no exception: it's all about the speaker's abandonment by women. If you take a quick look at a list of Wyatt's poems, you'll notice that many of them are about love and the pains that being in love can often cause. With titles like "My Heart I Gave Thee, Not To Do It Again," "Farewell, Love, and All Thy Laws Forever," and "How Oft Have I, My Dear and Cruel Foe," it sure seems like Wyatt thought a lot about love. He's like a precursor to the old school country singer, crooning about cheating hearts, crazy love, and the mystery that is women.

  • Form and Meter

    Iambic Pentameter

    Iambic Pentameter…of Sorts

    Ahem. Clear your throats, awesome readers, because we're about to make you read out loud. Come on, you can do it. Okay, ready? Give this one a try:

    They flee from me that sometime did me seek.

    How'd that feel? Probably pretty good, right? That line has a nice, regular rhythm to it, and when you read it aloud, it's hard not to fall into the beat. This particular rhythm is a meter called iambic pentameter, and it's one of the most common rhythms you'll see in English poetry.

    Iambic pentameter is a bit of a mouthful, but all it means is that this line can be divided into five groups or feet (that's the pentameter part), which each contain an iamb. What's an iamb, you ask? Well, it's an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, like "they flee" or "me seek."

    Of course, if the whole poem followed this meter exactly, that might get a little boring after a while, don't you think? Imagine reading twenty-one lines of da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. It's enough to make a person go crazy.

    Luckily, Wyatt has a solution for this problem – metrical variation. Sometimes, he'll pop in something different from an iamb, just to keep us on our toes. Take line 2, which we can scan like this: With na-ked foot stalk-ing in my cham-ber. You will notice that the third foot ("stalk-ing") begins with a stressed syllable and is followed by an unstressed syllable. This type of foot (stressed, unstressed) is called a "trochee." There's one more trochee in line 2. Can you find it?

    Another way he varies the meter is by changing the number of syllables in the line. A line of strict iambic pentameter has to have ten syllables, but sometimes Wyatt will lop off a syllable somewhere to add a little spice. Line 3 is a good example: Ihave seen them gent-le tame and meek. The first foot only contains one syllable – I. This is perfectly acceptable in poetry, and it's called catalexis (just think of a cat driving a Lexus). It is the process by which a syllable is chopped off from the beginning or end of a line of poetry. Some people just refer to it as a headless line, although that's a little creepy if you ask Shmoop.

    Of course, this is just a tiny taste of all the metrical variation Wyatt tosses in the poem. He's got all kinds of interesting things going on, so read it aloud to yourself a time or two to see what you come up with.

    A Rhyme Fit for a King

    This poem has a rhyme scheme, too. And before you go thinking that means it's plotting something sinister, a rhyme scheme just refers to the pattern of rhymes that come at the end of the lines of a poem. Think of it as a map that shows you what rhymes with what. And once you figure out that rhyme scheme, you can use it to help predict and analyze what's coming next in the poem.

    The rhyme scheme for Wyatt's poem is: ABABBCC. This means that each stanza has seven lines; the first and third lines rhyme, the second, fourth, and fifth lines rhyme, and the sixth and seventh rhyme. As it turns out, this is a very particular kind of form invented by one of Wyatt's heroes: Geoffrey Chaucer, whom many believe to be the founder of English poetry as we know it. It's called rhyme royal (sounds fancy, right?), and Chaucer used it all over the place, including in his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

  • Women

    The poem is all about the speaker's relationships with women, so, naturally, he talks about them a lot: like, for most of the poem. The speaker is vague at points, referring to women in the first stanza almost as if they were animals eating the "bread" he offers them. He becomes more sympathetic as the poem progresses when he discusses one particular woman who really rocked his world, mainly because he couldn't quite figure her out. Ah women, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. Or so our speaker seems to think.

    • Lines 1-2: The speaker uses only a pronoun ("they") to refer to his female visitors. "Naked feet" doesn't really help us as it only tells us that whoever it was wasn't wearing socks. Our speaker is being frustratingly coy.
    • Line 3: The speaker says he's seen his visitors "gentle tame and meek." While people can be "tame," this is a word that is usually reserved for animals. This is a metaphor comparing women to some kind of animal that has been trained or domesticated. It also fits with the rather old fashioned idea that women should not be forward when it comes to romance – a lady should never make the first move.
    • Line 4: The speaker says his visitors are now "wild." This, too, is a metaphor comparing women to wild, untamed animals. Well, that changed quickly.
    • Lines 5-7: The speaker says that women used to put themselves in danger and take bread from his hands but now they "range" elsewhere. The speaker yet again compares women to animals (the idea of taking bread suggests birds; "range" sounds more like something cattle would do). "Bread" is a metaphor for sex, or sexual activities. In fact, you might think of this whole first stanza as an extended metaphorthat compares women to animals in a bunch of different ways.
    • Lines 11-12: The speaker describes a memorable night with one particular woman. He says she "caught" him. "Caught" is a hunting metaphor – the woman is the hunter, the speaker the prey. This lady seems much more aggressive than the women of the first stanza.
    • Lines 13-14: The woman kissed the speaker and asked him if he liked it. How bold!
    • Lines 18: The speaker says he is allowed to leave because of the woman's goodness. It seems she's totally okay with this just being a one-night thing. But is our speaker?
    • Line 19: The woman is allowed to enjoy her desire for new things, which we take to mean new men. After all, can the speaker hold her to a standard that he, himself, can't achieve?
    • Line 21: The speaker wonders what this bold woman will get in return for her behavior. Will she be looked down upon? Admired? Punished?
  • Animals

    There aren't any actual animals in Wyatt's poem, but the speaker sure tries to make us think there are. In the first stanza in particular, he implies that he's talking about birds. Elsewhere in the poem, he drops some hunting metaphors and even some clever punning. Those animals never really disappear.

    • Line 1: The speaker says something is "fleeing" from him. This is a <strong>metaphor</strong>: the women are his prey, and they flee from him, the hunter.
    • Line 2: The word "stalking" can refer to the woman's movements. It makes us think of "stalks," an old Renaissance word for a part of a bird's leg.
    • Lines 3-4: Our guy continues to compare women to animals by saying that they were once "gentle tame and meek," but now are "wild." Now that we think of it, none of this is exactly flattering.
    • Lines 5-6: The women used to take bread from the speaker's hands. The speaker compares women to birds (that's a metaphor) and also compares sexual activities to the bread that feeds these animals (yet another metaphor).
    • Line 12: Now the speaker is "caught" by the woman. "Caught" is a metaphor in which the speaker is compared to some type of animal and the woman compared to a hunter. See how things have changed from the first stanza?
    • Line 14: The word "heart" may be a bit of a <strong>pun</strong>. Given all the hunting and animal words in the poem, we think of "hart" as well, which is an old-school word for a deer.
  • Clothing

    In the second stanza, the speaker talks about a girl that was really special to him. He relates a particular occasion where she visited him, and he seems a bit obsessed with her outfit. It almost seems like he's more fixated on the outfit the girl was wearing instead of, say, her looks or personality, because it's the clothing that makes her beautiful.

    • Line 10: The speaker recalls an occasion when a certain woman was dressed in "thin array" and looked pleasant. It's a striking image – a beautiful, scantily clad woman enters his bedroom. Who wouldn't sit right up and pay attention?
    • Line 11: The woman's "loose gown" fell from her shoulder. The gown falling is a rather delicate and poetic way of saying she got naked.
    • Steaminess Rating

      PG-13

      "They Flee from Me" is a pretty sexy poem. A girl's dress falls off, the speaker mentions that he has had women over for some late night fun at least twenty times, and he even complains that the girls he has now are out ranging around (i.e., looking for new sexual partners). While the speaker is delicate while talking about sex (he doesn't just come right out and say it), the fact that he speaks with "nicer" words (e.g. he compares sexual activities to "bread") only heightens the poem's excitement and intrigue.