From time to time a small group of friends, meeting in each others’ homes, read a poem by a famous poet and share their comments. The covid-19 lockdown has put a stop to meeting up in-person, but the circulation of poems and comments continues unchecked.

Recently one poem in particular proved so perplexing, and the comments so intriguing, that I felt the group’s analysis deserved a wider audience. Accordingly it is published here as a guest blog.star_tattoo_4_by_stock_kat

They Flee From Me

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.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

I struggled to understand what this is really about. The first stanza doesn’t seem to get explained by the other two which are about a female visitor in the night to his bedroom. I then struggled to know what he refers to by newfangleness or the last two lines.

The Wikipedia article was useful. I can interpret the poem as being about a woman or women that the author has loved, or as an oblique reference to him being in and out of favour with the ‘authorities’ of the time. Had to read it several times because of the early style of the poem.

Thanks for the steer to Wikipedia. It is easier to see where this is coming from but, perhaps, not where it is going. A lovely piece of craftsmanship, and just to think ‘newfangled’ isn’t at all, unless your name is Chaucer.

My first impression of this poem was of confusion: being untutored, I usually take a poem literally at first reading. So I pictured some kind of animal – birds, perhaps? – taking bread from a man’s hand. But then, a young woman? Or a child on the verge of growing up? I really needed the article to understand his use of ‘newfangleness’ which then put the rest of the poem into perspective. The rhyme pattern is ababbcc (not that I would have noticed otherwise!) and so is a sestet.

For anyone who is interested, this is what I think is going on in the poem, and why I chose it. I’m sorry it was hard to read for many; I think my tastes are… a bit odd. This is probably because I studied English Literature at college, concentrating on the period 1066 – 1350, and with a particular interest in the genre of medieval dream-poetry. Wyatt was writing much later than that, but this poem fascinates me partly because it feels (to me) transitional, liminal; it’s neither a medieval dream-poem (too late) or a Metaphysical poem (too early), but it’s.. kind of a link between what those two major chunks of English-language poetry were trying to do.

I LOVE Chaucer, but for modern audiences he really comes over as writing in a foreign language; the Gawain-poet even more so. Wyatt is writing in English. Not quite exactly our English, but even so, I felt this was maybe an accessible way in to this rich vein of wonder for modern readers – a footpath leading into the enchanted forest/the Wood Between the Worlds.

This is how I read the poem. (I may be misinterpreting it, and it’s not a scholarly reading – I am pretty uninformed, and what learning I do have in this area is out of date):

Verse 1
Woman-as-deer is an image lifted from Petrarch (Wyatt translated many of Petrarch’s poems into English and evidently looked up to him as a Master, an “Authority” (in the medieval sense). Deer are nearly always associated with both hunting, and with magic/the Otherworld, in pre-modern English poetic tradition. And immediately we’re in dream-poem territory; the deer are indoors, in the poet’s (bed)chamber; the only (semi)private space in a medieval house – the setting is shockingly intimate, private and personal.

And weirdness continues, in a series of dizzying reversals; the deer are the hunters. They were tame, taking bread from a human hand (as the fallow deer of medieval deer-parks were wont to do), but now they are wild, they range (the open forest, where huntable deer live, not the closed deer-park, where pet deer live), they seek (what?), they change.

In this verse there is no solid reality underfoot. Everything is in flux, image melts into image. We are not in Mundania. The poet is uncertain, self-questioning, vulnerable; maybe even hurt/wounded – is he now in danger? (Fairyland is perilous to mortals.) He is also portraying himself as the medieval ideal courtly lover: gentle and loyal… and at the moment very confused. And full of wonder.

Verse 2
The poet invokes Fortune (the goddess Fortuna, who rules over chance, also accident/disaster) – this is a “things are not going to end happily” cue. He looks back to a better time when the deer was a woman.

The poet recounts a treasured moment with one particular woman; of course it’s sexual, but even more than that, it’s intimate. The poet and his lover are emotionally and, psychologically naked to each other. She catches him. They are both vulnerable. And this happens after “a pleasant guise”. A guise is a masque; a popular court entertainment involving dressing-up and role-playing.

The poet and his lover shed their masks. The fragment of direct, intimate speech: “Dear heart, how like you this?” – this is who they really are to each other, when they don’t have social roles to play. I read this as an astonishingly powerful and honest love scene. It’s amazing; it gives me a real jolt. It doesn’t feel like a conventional courtly-love trope, it feels like a real encounter – hyper-real – the poet’s touchstone for dealing with Life the Universe and Everything. But we’re in a dream, aren’t we? “Her arms long and small” are medieval conventional beauty, the grace of the deer… is she real? Wonder, confusion and strangeness and love…

Verse 3
“It was no dream: I lay broad waking” – standard dream-poem disclaimer, immediately turned on its head, because we’re still in Turned-Upside-Down-Land where seeking becomes forsaking, and the deer-woman becomes something like the Belle Dame Sans Merci; the fairy queen who says “You thought you were hunting me but actually I was hunting you. You have pleased me. You may go now.”

The Wikipedia article defined “newfangleness” as “fickleness”, which it more-or-less was for Chaucer, but by Wyatt’s time it means something more like “new-fashioned”; different from the accepted fashion, unconventional. (The Old English root-word for “fang” means to grab, to seize (spoil, prey, booty)).

The play on words in the last couplet needs unpicking: I am served … she hath deserved.
“I am served” is a reversal of the conventional situation in which the courtly lover is the servant of his lady. “Deserved” comes from the Old French deservir, to serve well; so the poet is asking both “what is her reward?” and also “who has she served? What was her real agenda? Where does her loyalty truly lie?” Because inhabitants of the Otherworld are amoral. Beautiful, but heartless.

He thought he and his lady knew and trusted each other intimately, but now… he is finding out that he didn’t know her as well as he thought… or maybe at all? (I don’t think she is actually a fairy lover, I think she is a real woman, but the poet is using fairy-lover imagery to describe her. Oh, and fairies are not tiny cute beings with wings. They are people-size, supernaturally beautiful, and terrifying. And fairy deer are un-catchable, no matter how skilful or persistent a hunter you are.)

The critical article has the poet using all this gentle language rather viciously, in irony, but I disagree. I think Wyatt-in-the-poem is demonstrating his own good breeding (maybe at the lady, taking the moral high ground) by steadfastly maintaining a strict courtly-lover persona: constant, loyal, courteous, gentle, unchanging… and bewildered, hurt, caught up in… “nostalgia” doesn’t really capture it; it’s hiraeth (if one can have hiraeth for a person or a relationship rather than a place), a tugging at the heart-strings for a now-unreachable, lost-forever time of erotic love – love in the magical Garden, in the deer-park of the heart, the… groomed? carefully manicured? forest.

Strange. Uncanny. Creepy… was all that innocence really innocent? Has someone been playing power games? We will never know. Like most glimpses into the Otherworld, this one is extraordinarily beautiful… and strangely disturbing. It haunts me…