The poet directly asserts that the acquaintance to whom the poem is about once actively sought his company, yet now avoids him. The acquaintance had formerly been exposed in his chamber, and presented as a mild, disciplined and docile character; but is now unpredictable and has forgotten their former intimacy. The relationship has been unsafe for the acquaintance on occasion.
The danger has been in being close to the poet, eating together. The change now sees the acquaintance looking further abroad in search of new interests. The poet is grateful that this was not the situation in the past; the relationship has been at least twenty times better.
Wearing thin clothing, after a pleasant show, ‘her’ loose dress fell from her shoulders. She took the poet in her arms and kissed him tenderly. She then asked him directly if he was happy.
He recalls that this was not a dream as he was fully awake. He next notes that everything has now changed because of his mild nature, to a cruel situation of his abandonment.
He is now released from her for decency’s sake, and she is released to allow a new encounter. However, he questions, has he has been treated badly, what is the reader’s view? What is ‘she’ now worthy of?
The poem employs the technique of rime royal, used most notably by Geoffrey Chaucer. The technique consists of a seven-line structure, using iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABABBCC. There are two ways in which the septet is structured: the tercet and two couplets (ABA, BB, CC) and the quatrain and tercet (ABAB, BCC). ‘They Flee From Me’ uses both structures within its 21 lines: the tercet and couplets in lines 1-7 and the quatrain and tercet for lines 8-14 and 15-21. The poem presents three key ideas which are enhanced by this structure: that the poet is now rejected, that he was once favored and that there is a question as to how his lover should fare now she has abandoned him.
The poet begins in direct fashion, showing a paradox within the first line. ‘They’ now run from him, who formerly sought him out. The image of the ‘naked foot’ implies an intimate liaison, and the verb ‘stalking’ suggests that the visitor was the instigator of the association. Line 3 explains that this association was set in the poet’s room, adding to the tone of intimacy and secrecy in the relationship.
In line 3, the former acquaintance used to be calm, obedient and tame, but line 4 explains they are now uncontrollable and have forgotten the past. This second contrast of the past and the present emphasizes the dramatic change in the relationship. Line 5 expresses that the subject has taken risk to be with the poet.
The unnatural division between the poet and his lady is further highlighted by lines 5 and 6; which are connected by enjambment, then line 6 is divided within itself through the caesura. These techniques reflect the unconventional union and the poet’s distress at the end of it.
The image of taking bread may refer to the act of Holy Communion, or implies an intimacy in the sharing of bread with close associates. There is also a suggestion of deference to the poet. After the caesura, the seemingly obedient and loyal partner is roaming, actively searching for new attractions. It is implied that the variety and frequency of the new liaisons is what the lady seeks, not just a new partner; which suggests a licentiousness in the lady.
The poet expresses a bitter resignation that at least he has experienced a situation better than his present state. Fortune is personified as the benefactor of his earlier happiness; the poet is suggesting that the past joys were the product of luck, as opposed to love or deliberate action. His recollection is an occasion ‘Twenty times better’ when he recalls the lady, after a show for him in flimsy dress, held him and kissed him and asked if she was giving him pleasure. It seems at this time she was devoted to him, which makes the change in situation more intense.
Caesura is used again in line 15; where he asserts that the past, and this experience, was not a dream. Now though, it appears that the liaison was a dream as the relationship is ‘turn’d’. He blames his own manner: that of mildness, gentility and propriety, for the end of the affair, and he feels the harsh effects of the rejection.
The poet’s expression that he has released his lover to move on communicates an initial tone of acquiescence. However, the final lines of the poem show the real resentment and anger that the poet has in being rejected and left behind. He appeals directly to his audience, asking for their view as to what response her actions and behavior warrant.
It is possible to see the poem as a reflection on his liaison with Anne Boleyn before her union and marriage to Henry VIII. However, the tone of anger and frustration at being forsaken for another could apply equally well to Wyatt's first marriage as he separated from his wife due to her adultery. The relationship could also be a metaphor for the courtly relations, platonic and romantic, which were born and died with dangerous haste.