Study Guide

They Flee from Me

They Flee from Me Summary

Our speaker complains about the fact that "they" keep running away from him. All right, but who are "they"? He describes this mysterious group as if they're birds, or some sort of animal. They used to stalk his chamber, barefoot, and take bread from his hand, but now they don't come around anymore. Instead, they roam free, seeking change.

But there was one, once, who was a little different. She (it turns out the mysterious "they" refers to women, who used to visit his bedroom at night) came to him, scantily clad, and kissed him. It wasn't a dream (he swears, you guys!), but it was a strange encounter nonetheless. After all, she just leaves him there, and goes off in search of other, new men. When all is said and done, he's not sure how this woman should be treated.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    They flee from me that sometime did me seek,
    With naked foot stalking in my chamber.

    • The speaker begins the poem by talking about some people or things that used to visit him in his room ("chamber"), but now "flee" or hurry away from him.
    • Whomever or whatever it was that used to visit the speaker had "naked feet," which we'll just take to mean these mysterious visitors were barefoot.
    • The word "stalking" sounds kind of ominous (just think "stalker"), right? But it's not always a creepy word. Sometimes, it just means to "walk softly, cautiously, or stealthily." Plus, in the Renaissance, the feet of trained hawks and falcons (which had leather straps on them called jesses) were called "stalks." Is the speaker talking about birds? Or is he being playful?
    • In any case, "Naked" feet are probably pretty quiet, so at least we know that much.
    • It's worth noting that the first line of this poem is written in iambic pentameter. We won't go into that here, but check out "Form and Meter" for more information. We can't be sure, but it's a safe bet that the rest of this poem just might be in iambic pentameter, too.
    • Also, try reading these lines aloud to yourself. Do you notice anything about them in particular? How about all those repeated vowel sounds? We have the long "e" of "flee," "me," and "seek," and then the long "a" of "naked" and "chamber." When poets repeat vowel sounds like this we call it assonance. See if you spot any more of this as you go deeper into the poem. (You totally will.)

    Lines 3-6

    I have seen them gentle tame and meek
    That now are wild and do not remember
    That sometime they put themselves in danger
    To take bread at my hand; […]

    • The speaker continues to contrast his mystery visitors' previous behavior with their present behavior. Apparently, these visitors were once "tame and meek" but are now wild. They used to "take bread" from the speaker's hands, even though it was dangerous, and he seems a bit puzzled as to why they don't anymore.
    • It seems like the speaker is talking about birds, which are notoriously skittish around people. Plus, they like to eat bread. They also have "naked" feet (birds don't wear shoes or socks after all).
    • In any case, it definitely seems like our guy is talking about some sort of animal, because he uses words like "tame" and "wild."
    • "Meek" can mean a lot of things, but here, it probably just means humble or submissive because the speaker is talking about something that is "gentle" and "tame."
    • "Sometime" is just about the same thing as "sometimes." It means occasionally, or at one time or another.
    • You'll notice that we're still trucking along in iambic pentameter, and now we've got some rhymes, too. Line 3 rhymes with line 1, and lines 4 and 5 rhyme with line 2. Keep your eye out for more rhymes as you continue reading, and you might want to see if you can spot a pattern. We'll talk more about this in our "Form and Meter" section if you're in need of some clues.
    • And like the first two lines of the poem, these lines make use of some repeated sounds as well. Only now our poet is using something called consonance, or repeated consonant sounds. Did you notice all the "m" sounds in "them," "tame," "meek," and "remember"? Like assonance, consonance appears in many other places in the poem, so be sure to be on the lookout.

    Lines 6-7

    […] and now they range
    Busily seeking with a continual change.

    • Nowadays, instead of visiting our speaker, it seems like these visitors are busy looking for other people to spend time with. The word "range" means something like "wander" or "roam," or "move in many directions." And while they range, these visitors are seeking something. But what?
    • The phrase "continual change" is a little mysterious, too. It probably means that the speaker's visitors are now constantly changing their minds about whom they want to visit or where they want to go.
    • And check out the rhyme here. In a break from the alternating rhymes of the earlier lines, these two lines rhyme with each other, bringing the first stanza to a rousing end.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 8-9

    Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
    Twenty times better; […]

    • Wait. What? The syntax here is really, really strange. He seems to be thanking fortune, which is kind of like saying thank God or thank goodness. But what for?
    • He seems glad that it was twenty times better. The "it" here seems to be referring to these nighttime visits, but what does it mean that they were twenty times better? Does that just mean that these late night visits happened twenty times (and maybe more)? Or perhaps he's saying he's grateful that it was better before when he had twenty visits, because now he doesn't get any.
    • Either way, it seems like he's saying, hey, at least I had visitors before – and twenty, to boot. That ain't too shabby.
    • So the key here is that our newly lonely speaker is totally consoling himself. He might not be getting these visits anymore, but he can find some comfort in the fact that he got them at all.

    Lines 9-12

    […] 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;

    • Just when we thought this guy's life was a blur of late night escapades (with what or whom, we're still not sure), he tells us that one of these nights was totally special. It now appears the speaker's mysterious visitors are women ("her," "gown"), and that there's one special lady in particular.
    • There's a bit of strange vocabulary in these lines, so before we get to discussing them, let's get some terms under our belt: "In special" is an old way of saying "especially." And "Array" used to mean outfit or dress. Finally, "After a pleasant guise" means the woman's outfit was pleasant or pleasing to our speaker. So it sounds like this female visitor was wearing something really slinky and sexy.
    • And apparently she takes it off pretty darn quickly, too, as she lets it fall from her shoulders.
    • Then, our speaker was "caught" in the woman's arms, which are apparently long and small. This kind of sounds like a neat way of saying that they embraced each other, but it also totally reminds us of hunting and traps, as if the speaker is no longer in control. Earlier he seemed dominant (the women, whom he described as birds, were "tame" and "gentle). But now he's the victim.
    • And why does the speaker say "she me caught" instead of "she caught me"? It sounds kind of clunky, but this might just be Wyatt trying to stick to the iambic pentameter he's been using so far in the poem. This way, the word "caught" gets more emphasis than the word "me," which is fitting for the meaning of these lines.
    • You know what else strikes us about these lines? Earlier, the speaker seemed dominant (the women, whom he described like birds, were "tame" and "gentle"). But during this particular visit he was the victim, or prey. This woman is bold. Which is all the more shocking when you think about what kind of behavior was expected from women when this poem was written in the sixteenth century.
    • Just one more thing (we promise): the rhymes in these lines seem to be falling into the same pattern as the one set up in the stanza before. As it turns out, there's a name for this (in poetry, there's a name for just about everything). It's called rhyme royal, and you can find out more in our "Form and Meter" section.

    Lines 13-14

    And therewith all sweetly did me kiss,
    And softly said,
    "Dear heart, how like you this?"

    • Things are definitely heating up. Avert your eyes, kiddies! After the woman "caught" the speaker, she kissed him really sweetly and asked if he liked it. We're betting he did.
    • Again, these lines have some tricky terms, so a little translation just might be in order. "Therewith" means "straight away" or "then," and "Dear heart" is kind of like saying "dear sweetheart" or "dear honey." Get it? Got it? Good.
    • Considering the fact that the first stanza described these women as animals, and the speaker has made himself seem like their prey, there just might be a pun on the word "heart," because hart used to be another word for deer.
    • Here's a question: What is "this" referring to? The kiss, or the clothes she's wearing? Something else entirely? In other words, what exactly is this woman asking the man to tell her?
    • It's also important to note the alliteration in line 14: "softly said." Alliteration will pop up a few other times in the poem, so keep your eyes open for it, and of course take a look at our "Sound Check" section for more.
    • What's so awesome about these lines, and this second stanza in general, is that they completely change the way we read that first stanza. These aren't birds or animals. They're women. Any doubt or confusion we had earlier is totally cleared up at this point, and the implied metaphor of the first stanza (that these women are like a dime-a-dozen hungry animals) is revealed.
    • Plus, we learn more about our speaker. He's very promiscuous, but he also doesn't seem totally content with that life. If he were, this one particular visit might not be so special.
    • This of course begs the question: why was this particular night so special in the first place? What's different about it? Well, unlike all the other women in stanza one, who are practically feeding out of the speaker's hand, the woman in this stanza has got all the power. She catches him. She kisses him.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 15-17

    It was no dream, I lay broad waking;
    But all is turned thorough my gentleness
    Into a strange fashion of forsaking;

    • The speaker insists that the whole kiss thing wasn't a dream, but real. He was wide-awake, he swears! Whatever you say, buddy.
    • Before we get ahead of ourselves, let's clarify some more of these rather old-fashioned phrases. The phrase "thorough my gentleness" means through my gentleness, or because of my gentleness. "Forsaking" means abandoning and "fashion" means habit or way.
    • So basically, even though he was totally nice to her (our guy's ever-the gentleman), this girl totally gave him the cold shoulder. No more late night visits. Harsh!
    • Apparently, the speaker's "gentleness" has somehow caused her to do this. Maybe he should have played hard to get. Or something.

    Lines 18-19

    And I have leave to go of her goodness
    And she also to use newfangleness.

    • The speaker and his late night visitor appear to have some sort of open relationship arrangement. Because she's so good, he's allowed to go chase other women. And she, too, is allowed to pursue other guys.
    • "Of her goodness" means "because of her goodness," or "because she is so good." But we've seen nothing so far that makes her seem good at all, so maybe our speaker's being a little ironic – you know, saying one thing while meaning just the opposite? He is upset, after all. "Newfangleness" is an old word (Wyatt actually stole this quirky word from its first inventor – Chaucer) that means a "fondness for novelty or new things," or the act of being "easily carried away by whatever is new." To put it simply, this girl is fickle. It's not exactly a nice word, and it suggests our girl is, shall we say, less than monogamous. She'll spend time with whatever dude catches her wandering eye next.

    Lines 20-21

    But since that I so kindly am served,
    I would fain know what she hath deserved.

    • This is a strange conclusion, right? Our guy is wondering what this woman deserves as a result of her kindness towards him. Or at least, that's what it sounds like at first.
    • Kindly can have two possible meanings, though. For one, it could mean that he has been kindly treated, as in, she treated him nicely. But our speaker sure doesn't seem thrilled with her, so perhaps he's being ironic again?
    • Maybe. But kindly can also mean doing something in a way typical of one's "kind." In other words, the sentence could mean "since you're treating me in a way typical of females" or "since you're treating me the way I have treated you."
    • And finally, "Fain" means "gladly." So our speaker would "gladly" like to know what the woman deserves for her behavior, because he sure doesn't have a clue.
    • This line could have a couple of different meanings. First, it could mean that he thinks this woman has behaved badly, and might deserve punishment, because women shouldn't be making such promiscuous sexual advances. Then again, it could also mean that he thinks she deserves something better than just a midnight tryst, because she's a good person.
    • Either way, it seems our speaker doesn't quite know how to treat this lady because none of the typical rules of relationships seem to apply to this new, "strange" situation. Before, when he had all the power, things were pretty simple. But now that she appears to be the one in charge, our boy's in the weeds.