One of my favourites from this section. The poet is being nostalgic for his earlier days when he was a bit of a hit with the ladies and used to get his end away regularly – quite the Casanova. He expresses this period through a hunting analogy – himself the hunter and the girls his prey.
Then he describes the one special lady amongst all his conquests, who tamed him and assumed the role of hunter from him leaving him meek. However, it doesn’t work out and he is left filled with regret and jealousy as she moves onwards and upwards.
A typical man, he hopes that she gets rewarded for her loyalty to him.
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 themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thankéd 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,
Therewith all 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 servéd,
I fain would know what she hath deservéd.
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
This is really juicy!
Wyatt was an advisor to Henry VII and then his son Henry VIII. Although he married, he had a bit of a reputation for liking ladies, but actually divorced his wife on the grounds that she was an adulterer (the cheek!). Anyway, it’s what happened after his divorce that’s really interesting.
He is rumoured to have fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. Now, in case you don’t know, Anne was considered to be a gorgeous piece of crumpet in Henry VIII’s court and caused quite a few problems with men wanting to abandon their fiancés or wives to be with her. The most significant problem was caused by Henry VIII’s interest in her as he decided he wanted his first marriage to be declared illegal so he’d be free to marry Anne (on the grounds that his brother, Arthur, had been married to Catherine, his current wife, previously). When the Pope refused to play ball, Henry decided to start his own Church and do what the hell he liked. He married Anne in 1533 and lived happily ever after… for a few weeks.
What’s this got to do with Wyatt? Well, prior to the marriage, Wyatt is thought to have fallen in love with Anne and had some sort of dalliance. No doubt, he’d feel pretty hard done by if she wandered from his bed to that of the King.
Anyway, in 1536 Anne had her head chopped off and Wyatt was briefly imprisoned along with five others for committing treason by boffing the King’s wife. Anne was convicted of adultery, incest and witchcraft, but probably really it was only Henry VIII’s jealousy and suspicion that led to her demise.
Could this poem be about his love for Anne and his broken heart? There is certainly a compelling narrative.
This is another side of love.
The poetic voice is filled with regret as he traces back through his pleasant nostalgia of his youthful love, which in this case is linked explicitly to sex. His life has now lost the joy and thrill of regular sexual dalliances, which he remembers fondly, but regrets its current absence. I suppose you could also link this to the idea of mortality and ageing as this explores a lost youth.
In addition, nature is again a feature as a hunting analogy is used throughout.
Let’s start with the title.
It immediately positions the poem to be examining the change in his life from desirable to feared/loathed. The word ‘flee’ suggests panic and desire to escape, while ‘seek’ shows that he was in demand.
The first stanza confirms this, but adds sexual connotations. If we take the ‘they’ to be girls then we see that they are regularly in his chamber or bedroom. What else could they be there for? It’s not open to debate as they are ‘naked…stalking’, which makes them sexual, but also suggests something secretive about the relations as they clearly don’t wish to draw attention to themselves. My point is reinforced when it says they ‘put themselves in danger’ suggesting that they will be in trouble if they are caught (a lady having an affair outside of marriage would quickly have her reputation ruined and not be able to secure a favourable marriage in the future).
Next, he focuses on one particular girl. He describes their encounters, but it is clear that he is besotted with her and she has gained power over him. Notice how she ‘caught’ him and is clearly controlling their encounter.
However, things obviously haven’t worked out. He explains that it wasn’t a dream, which suggests just how strongly the encounter has impacted upon him. She has left him ‘thorough my gentleness’, which can either be read as through his submissive character or because he is thoroughly gentle or too weak and submissive: much of a muchness really. Alternatively if you want to be very vulgar and link this to mortality, you could argue that this gentleness refers to the state of his genitals and the fact he is too old to be productive in the bedroom, causing her to look elsewhere – if you do mention this, be careful to phrase it appropriately.
When he says ‘forsaking’ it implies she has abandoned him and he is clearly hurt by this and thinks she was just using him. If this is about Anne Boleyn this would fit with her upgrading to marry Henry VIII.
The final lines suggest that he feels hard done by and he wonders what whether she will get what her behaviour deserve and presumably having her head chopped off would be fitting in his eyes.
It is important to think about the expectation of women at the time. They were meant to be submissive to their father or husband and were certainly not expected to be sexually active before marriage. Notice how in this poem the girl in focus is castigated for being promiscuous whereas it celebrates the poet’s own nocturnal activities: hypocritical values!
Language and techniques
Okay, let’s look at the semantic field of hunting that is used throughout the poem. In the first line the words ‘flee’ and ‘seek’ position the girls as animals now scared, but previously lured in by the hunter/poet. Not convinced? Next we here about them ‘stalking’, which is something normally the hunter does to their prey and the relationship he has with the girls sees them described as ‘gentle, tame , and meek’ – tame in particular links them to animals – but are now seen as ‘wild’ again to him. Next they are referred to as birds as they ‘take bread at [his] hand’, which suggests a sense of intimacy between the girls and the poet.
Why has this been used? Well, it establishes the relationship between the poet and the girls. If he is a hunter and they are the prey then we immediately think about his sexual dominance and authority over these women that visit him. These women are desperate for him.
However, the special lady changes this. The fact that ‘she caught me’ tells us that she is in charge of their relationship and is the dominant party. Caught also relates to hunting when we think of traps or just capturing one’s prey. What does this make us think about this girl? Clearly he is entranced, but is this the behaviour we would expect of a girl and if this does depict Anne Boleyn can we not understand why Henry VIII might have felt insecure about their relationship? She knows what she wants and she takes it, even discarding this relationship to move on up.
I’d also mention the sarcasm in the last two lines. He doesn’t think he has been ‘kindly… servéd’ really, he feels like he has been tossed aside, This means the last line where he wants to ‘know what she hath deservéd’ is meant in the manner of him wanting to know she got her comeupance.
If you want to link the presentation of love in this poem to sex then consider the initial ‘naked stalking’ of his bedroom, which positions these girls as sexual conquests rather than all being true loves. Later we hear about the ‘loose gown [that] from her shoulders did fall’, which makes his special relationship sound like one based primarily on the urges of the groin rather than the heart.
A couple of things to mention.
I really like the consonance used in the opening stanza when he is reminiscing his pleasant memories. In line 3 notice the ‘m’ sound that repeats – ‘I have seen them, gentle, tame, and meek,’ – you have to linger over the pronunciation of this sound due to the immediate pause with the commas and it is as if we are lingering over these pleasing historical daydreams.
There is also enjambment to match his excitement when he recalls the risks they were putting themselves at by seeing him in lines 4-7, followed by a caesura in line 7 to sadly contrast the difference in their behaviour now as ‘now they range’ or stay away from him and play with others (quite literally).
There is definitely a sense of regret, but I wouldn’t overstate it. On the whole, the poet is grateful for this period of his life and enjoys nostalgically considering his previous good fortune – ‘Thankéd by fortune it hath been otherwise’ – thank god he can remember when he was still popular.
He is enjoying looking back, but regrets that he no longer enjoys this kind of life and, in particular, the attentions of this ‘special’ one.