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.
Summary and Analysis
The poem “They flee from me” is an excellent rendition of the sad affair of the poet–lover who once was received benediction of love from the beloved, but now is being discarded for the newer association of the beloved. The poem seems to suggest that the poet is in discord with himself as he is not able to fathom the fact that the people, especially his beloved, who used to be at his chamber eagerly looking forward for his intimacy are now behaving in such an awkward manner when they are fleeing from him. Time has turned its tide against the lover as he is not anymore the favoured being of the beloved who seeks other’s company and therefore the poem in some way talks about the futility of the efforts of the poet lover.
The poem begins with a very melancholic note when the poet mourns the fact that the people those who used to throng his chamber (his house or his office) at one point of time are fleeing from him. Though the poet starts with the pronoun ‘they’ yet we come to know as we progress through the poem that he is not referring to many people but his erstwhile beloved who is fleeing from him now. The phrase “did seek me with naked foot” suggest a kind of physical intimacy which the poet enjoyed with the beloved at a certain time. At that time, the beloved was “gentle, tame and meek” suggesting that she used to present that self of hers in front of the poet. The questions that the poet seems to be asking are – Why is it that she changed her behaviour with time? What makes her change her colours so much? The poet cannot fathom the fact that the same people who used to meekly submit before him once are now “wild.” The wilderness of the beloved makes us remind of her rugged nature who knows not what she is doing.
At one point of time, the beloved used to seek the poet’s company for dinner (to take bread) but now she abhors it and presents herself to be so that she is extremely busy with things and does not have the time for the lover. Though things have changed, but the way it was earlier was something which the poet is reminded of. He says that earlier, she used to come to him in a “pleasant guise” and let her gown fall from her shoulders and she used to get physically close to him and would sweetly kiss him and ask if he liked it. The poet further asserts that this physical intimacy is not something which he is just dreaming about as he is awake and in his senses.
But all that is a thing of the past; and now by some “strange fashion” things have changed altogether and she has interest in new foppish culture. What the poet means is that she has developed newer interests and is this enamoured by those and not having any time for the poet lover. The poet then appeals to the readers that he has presented the case of the beloved before them and now the readers should decide what she deserves.
The beloved probably is Anne Boleyn with whom the poet was in love with and who was married to King Henry VIII. The poet could no longer think of being one with her as she was the Queen. Though some scholars also feel that the beloved may be his first wide with whom he sought separation for her adultery. It probably does not matter who the beloved is in real life as the poem deals with a sensibility of the poet who is jilted in love and therefore asks the readers what is the kind of treatment that the beloved deserves as she flees from him.
The poem represents the inconstancy of the women is typically thought to be transgressive by the Renaissance men. It is to be understood here that though the poet –lover accuses the beloved of changing her stanch as far as poet’s love is concerned, but the beloved is not there to present her case. She may have a reason to do so. We, the readers, just hear one side of the story and it is very difficult for the readers to decide what the beloved actually deserves as she may have a different story to tell where her viewpoint may be very different from the poet-lover. But women’s voice(s) is usually silent in a patriarchal culture as she is not allowed to speak and even if she speaks, there is no one to listen to her. The renaissance may be an age of awakening for the mankind, but it is only for the Mankind and not the humankind; the women are left out from the realm of that awakening.