If one were to briefly paraphrase Sir Thomas Wyatt’s poem, “They Flee from Me,” it may sound something like this:
Those women, who once took risks to seek out my bed, now reject my pursuit of them.
Once, a particularly special woman made me feel something in my heart when we slept together, but in the end, she was as superficial as the others.
I would like to get back at her for how she cheated me.
While to an unappreciative reader, this simplification of Wyatt’s poem may seem a sufficient alternative to the lengthy, at times tiring process of truly unpacking a poem’s content, this simplification also reduces it in ways that essentially destroy the very complexity that crafts its poetic beauty, and deems it “art.”
One important element of poetry, is its structure. This includes the rhyme scheme, the metre, and the line breaks. In “They Flee from Me,” Wyatt has structured the poem into three separate stanzas of seven lines each. Nearly every line (save for line 3, 13, and 15) contains 10 syllables, and follows a fairly strict metre called ‘iambic pentameter.’ Additionally, each stanza follows a rhyme scheme of ABABBCC. What this structure does, and what makes it so much more artistically effective than the paraphrased version above, is that the poet is able to craft meaning by drawing attention to certain ideas through these patterns, as well as by breaking these patterns.
For example, the three lines that do not meet the 10 syllables of the iambic pentameter line, all give the reader important insight into Wyatt’s speaker’s emotional state, and thought process. In line 3, where there are only 9 syllables, this break in pattern draws the reader’s attention to what the speaker is saying: “I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek” (Wyatt 3). This deviation from the 10-syllable line pattern, paired with the excessive use of commas, exaggerated the speaker’s portrayal of the women (his sexual “predators” if you will) as docile. Their meekness comes into contrast however with the speaker’s portrayal of them as hunters who seek him out, and is where tension is crafted. Likewise, on line 13, when the speaker says, “Therewithwal sweetly did me kiss,” (Wyatt 13) the break in the syllabic pattern draws us as readers to the intensity, and intimacy of this interaction the speaker has with this one woman. Again, on line 15, the break in the 10-syllable line pattern emphasizes to the reader the speaker’s self-reflective state: “It was no dream: I lay broad waking” (Wyatt 15). Had one only read the paraphrased version of Wyatt’s poem, they would miss these structural elements that add context, and complexity to the poem.
Turning to the rhyme scheme, Wyatt actually follows a very strict pattern – which is what makes his single break in pattern all the more effective: “Twenty times better, but once in special” (Wyatt 9). Essentially, what Wyatt’s speaker seems to be implying is that while he’s been with many women, only one was special, or different. The break in rhyme on that last word, “special,” emphasizes just how special this woman really was, or is to the speaker.
Another important element of poetry is the crafting of imagery. Take for example, the following:
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small,
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss (Wyatt 11-13)
There’s a moment of passion in these lines that we would miss had Wyatt simply said, “we had sex.” We would lose the speaker’s description of her body, and the intimate moment where he is held in her arms. This glimpse into the intimacy that is shared between the speaker and this woman, makes the speaker’s realization in the final stanza – that in reality, she is no different than the other women he has been with – all the more heartbreaking. This intimacy and emotional tension would be lost without Wyatt’s crafting of such poetic imagery.
Diction, or word choice is also an important element of poetry that adds meaning and depth to a poem. Without it, the reader is limited in their understanding of the speaker, or the poet’s thoughts and feelings. Take for example, the line: “In thin array after a pleasant guise” (Wyatt 10). The “special” woman comes to him after a night of foolery, of disguise or inauthenticity (indicated by the word choice of “guise”), in “thin array”. This “thin array” can be interpreted as the woman being not only physically uncovered, but perhaps emotionally and spiritually uncovered as well. The speaker sees this woman, at least momentarily, as more authentic than the other women he has been with, because she comes to him undisguised. A paraphrased version of Wyatt’s poem lacks the very specific diction that he’s chosen, and thus prevents the reader from making any kind of in-depth interpretation of the importance of this woman’s actions to the speaker.
Likewise, in the line, “[w]ith naked foot stalking…” (Wyatt 2), the juxtaposition of “naked” and “stalking” create tension and complexity in how Wyatt’s speaker describes the women he sleeps with. While “naked” implies a kind of intimacy and vulnerability, “stalking” indicates that these women are powerful, and perhaps aggressive.
On the next line, Wyatt describes seeing these women as “gentle, tame, and meek” (Wyatt 3). How do we reconcile these very different ways that Wyatt’s speaker talks about these women?
Then, again the speaker describes these women as “wild,” and as not remembering the danger they put themselves in before: “now [they are] are wild, and do not remember / that sometime they put themself in danger, / to take bread at my hand” (Wyatt 4-6). This contradictory way of describing the women as both predator and prey simultaneously, gives the reader insight into the speaker’s beliefs about these women, about the sexual scripts he has internalized, and also his beliefs about himself that we would not otherwise be privy to had we only read a paraphrased version of Wyatt’s poem. The image that Wyatt uses of the women putting themselves in danger also presents an interesting, and perhaps puzzling idea about the speaker. Why should these women be in danger for seeking out the speaker sexually? Is the threat coming from the speaker himself, or perhaps external factors like societal expectations of gender and sexuality, or perhaps a combination of these things?
Alternatively, the comparison that Wyatt makes of the women to birds who feed from his hand may suggest that perhaps Wyatt’s speaker is not a threat at all to these women, but in fact, a provider. While in the context of a ‘man = hunter, woman = hunted’ discourse, women would normally risk endangering themselves by approaching a man, Wyatt’s speaker is different than these other men, because he provides for the women who approach him, rather than hunting them. If one interprets Wyatt’s poem in such a way, then we begin to see that not only does a paraphrasing of the poem erase it of this complexity, but it actually completely reverses the more obvious notion of the hunter/hunted metaphor. Assuming this, the previous interpretation of Wyatt’s description of the women as becoming “wild” (Wyatt 4), is also flipped. Instead, we can now interpret the speaker as having tamed these women who were once wild, by luring them into his literal, and metaphorical hands: While other men have taught them to fear, Wyatt’s speaker has taught them to love. Yet, ironically this luring is really another form of hunting, and it also becomes the downfall of Wyatt’s speaker. Having taught these women that they can seek him out sexually, without putting themselves in danger, the speaker has left himself vulnerable to being used by these women, in the exact same way that he has used them. Like birds that have been tamed, they have become accustomed to his presence, and can now come and go as they please. It is even possible that the lessening of threat, also translates to a lessening of sexual excitement, thus why the women now “flee” form him, and perhaps seek out that excitement elsewhere.
While paraphrasing may very well serve a purpose in some contexts, when it comes to crafting poetry, elements such as metre, rhyme, diction, imagery, and metaphor, all work together to craft poems that are complex and artful.
Wyatt, Thomas. “They Flee from Me”. The MacMillan Anthologies of English Literature, volume 2: The Renaissance, edited by Gordon Campbell, 1989, pp. 185.