Presenting a Reversal of Fortune in ‘They Flee From Me’

In Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” the speaker considers all his previous sexual conquests (with a particular emphasis on one “special” partner), and then wonders why these women are no longer interested in him. Usually in love poetry, the man plays the role of the dominant partner whereas the woman is painted as the vulnerable or subordinate partner. However in Wyatt’s poem, there is an inversion in the relationship and the speaker is left at the mercy of the “special” woman. Although the punishment of having sex outside of marriage was far worse for women at that time, in this poem, the speaker attempts to identify himself as the victim. His emotions can possibly be linked to his position of sexual vulnerability, which would have been strange and unfathomable to a man of his era. It is clear that a reversal of fortunes has been presented in this poem; therefore, the question we ought to be asking ourselves is: How exactly has the concept been presented by the author in this poem?

In the first stanza, the phrase ‘that sometime did me seek,’ suggests that the women were once initiators of the relationship, yet the word ‘flee’ creates a sense of desperation in the departure of the speaker’s sexual partners. Besides that, the speaker depicted these women as “gentle, tame, and meek”, or as all having relatively subordinate qualities. However, now that these women no longer frequent his chambers, the speaker considers them to be “wild”. Through this, the speaker promotes the unfair suggestion that a woman abandoning a man is the equivalent of being uncivilized: instead, she should be a “tame,” functioning member of society. The speaker proceeds by comparing women to animals and comparing bread to sexual activities. Essentially, the speaker is trying to say that women used to endanger themselves in order to have sexual relations with him but now they “range” elsewhere. This sustains the theme of abandonment that was obtained from the first line of the stanza. It seems that when women do not want or obey the speaker, they then become unfavourable and lose the function that they serve in his life. Thus, it can be argued that the speaker sees women as merely sexual objects and not as human beings. This is ironic due to the fact that in the third stanza, the speaker complains of being a victim of sexual objectification.

Furthermore, this poem suggests that sex is never equal. There is always a controlling party who is seducing his or her submissive partner. In this case, the reversal of fortune is presented through the reversal of sexual dominance. A sexually dominant woman is introduced in this stanza, which provides a stark contrast to the subordinate meek temperament of his previous sexual partners. This is inferred from the portrayal of her gown as “loose”, which can be seen as a symbol of her sexual promiscuity. It is also worth noting that his fixation seems to be on the woman’s outfit instead of her physicality or personality, as the positive descriptions of this woman are all centered around her garments, through phrases such as “thin array” and “pleasant guise”.

The word “guise” implies that the narrator knows that this woman may be deceiving him, yet the phrase “she me caught” gives the audience the notion that he cannot help but be entrapped by her manipulative and seductive advances. “Caught” can relate to hunting as well, which perpetuates the idea that the female is now the aggressive hunter who is seeking out her male prey. It can also be said that the hunting metaphor is continued by the usage of the word “heart” in the last line. This is because “heart” sounds similar to the word “hart”, which bears the meaning of an adult male deer. This clearly illustrates the reversal of fortunes experienced by the speaker in terms of sexual dominance.

In the third and final stanza, the reversal of fortune is presented through a reversal in emotional attachment. The opening line comments on the dreamlike sequence of events in the previous stanzas, yet the reader will notice a shift in tone when the speaker begins to relentlessly criticize the woman’s indulgence in “newfangleness” and her “strange fashion of forsaking”; that is, her faithlessness and promiscuity, even though the speaker seems to pride himself on those very qualities in the previous two stanzas. One detects the speaker’s bitterness most strongly in his suggestion that she has rejected him because of his gentleness. The word “gentleness” implies that the speaker had romantic feelings for the woman. However, the speaker had been so used to stereotypically submissive women in the past that he does not know how to treat this bold, dominant woman. Naturally, this would make him frustrated and confused, which is why the manifestation of these feelings can be found in the concluding couplet. In the sarcasm of the final lines, he asks rhetorically how she may deserve to be treated since she has treated him “so kindly”, and wonders if she got her comeuppance in the end. This vitriolic bitterness directly contrasts the first line of the second stanza, in which the speaker states that he is actually grateful that for the departure of his previous sexual partners. Hence, it is obvious that the speaker has experienced a reversal of fortune in terms of emotional attachment.

Power and Love through Sonnet

The relationship between power and love brims with conflict. Introducing a dominant and a surrendering role within the interactions of men and women unequivocally creates opposition between the two. In three different sonnets by Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, and W. B. Yeats display the conflicting dynamic between men and women in different situations depicting one as more powerful than the other. In Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Whoso list to honte I know where is an hind”, the metaphor of a hunter unable to catch a fleeting and already claimed hind, or deer, describes the love of a man for an unattainable woman. Next, Edmund Spenser’s similar poem “Sonnet LXVII” details a deer allowing a hunter to obtain her. Lastly, W. B. Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” discusses the Greek myth of Zeus’s rape of Leda in swan form and its subsequent results. Using varied approaches to the traditional conventions of the sonnet, as well as copious literary techniques, Wyatt, Spenser, and Yeats each clearly present three different arguments on the nature of power in love.

Firstly, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s warning sonnet, “Whoso list to honte I know where is an hind” argues that above all the magnitude of power determines love. Honouring the original theme of the sonnet form, the speaker suffers unrequited love. But even beyond this, Wyatt remains very traditional in his usage of the Petrarchan sonnet, and essentially remains within its conventions. Each section entirely contains a single phase of the poem’s function. The initial four lines of the octave present the problem of the hunter’s exhaustion in the chase. The second half, containing a separate action upon the transitional word “yet” (5), assures that the speaker however continues to pursue. Both of these narrative quatrains contain several examples of alliteration, such as “me/may/more” (2) and “fainting/follow” (7), emphasising the tiresome repetition of the speaker’s weary plight. The final sestet separates itself with a sudden change of tone from narrative to warning in the form of an apostrophe “Who list her hunt” (9), while simultaneously drawing attention back to the speaker’s purpose by repeating a line similar to the first of the poem. In this way, Wyatt effectively produces his caution on pursuing an unattainable woman.

Notably, the poem ends in a slant rhyme, “am/tame” (13, 14). This imperfection mirrors message of the the final line: “wild for to hold, though I seem tame” (14). Although the entire poem until this point reads in almost flawless Petrarchan form, it does not end as perfectly. The poem, much like the deer herself, cannot be seamlessly contained within traditional poetic conventions. In connection, beyond the poem’s historical context of Wyatt within the court of King Henry VIII, the poet produces a higher lesson regarding power and the pursuit of love through the final two lines. The deer teases the hunter as evidenced by its description of seeming tame. Regardless of whether the deer wants the hunter to catch it or not, a higher power suppresses this possibility. It belongs to “Caesar” (13), a king. With this dissatisfactory conclusion, Wyatt clearly proves his overlying argument: love is subject to the highest power confronting it.

In a related extended metaphor, Edmund Spenser’s “Sonnet LXVII” presents a contrasting solution to attaining a desired woman. Ultimately, Spenser argues that power and pursuit do not always determine the achievement. In terms of style, “Sonnet LXVII” already sets itself apart from Yeats and Wyatt’s poems by taking Spenser’s own Spenserian form. Spenser uses the first two quatrains to describe an extended metaphor taken one step further than Wyatt’s; “lyke as a huntsman” (1) refers to the deer itself. The role reversal appears as the deer “return’d the selfe-same way” in reference to the aforementioned metaphorical huntsman. Thus, not only the speaker but also the deer take on the role of hunter, displaying a rare equality of power. In this way, Spenser stresses the matched ability of the female half of the pursuit to determine whether to subside. Spenser however contradicts himself as to the nature and intent of the deer, when, in consecutive lines, he describes the deer as both “fearelesse” (10) and simultaneously “halfe trembling” (11). This illuminates the remaining relationship between the two, although the deer made the choice to surrender, this does not ensure a complete empowerment of the female party. The two roles remain: man and beast, and her position persists as the lower. Spenser, like Wyatt, retains the unavoidable message the hunting metaphor carries: one party must take on the subordinate role. In the case of “Sonnet LXVII”, Spenser concludes by asserting that the deer, albeit “with her owne will”, is “beguyld” (14). Both Wyatt and Spenser convey the essentiality of the male party either possessing or failing, and the female either succumbing or fleeing. Nevertheless, Spenser’s poem differs in that the power of the hunter remained uninfluential to the ultimate result. Hence, Spenser argues that love can act outside of the power of those who desire it.

Finally, W.B. Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ presents an ambiguous yet undeniably jarring scene which clearly illustrates a more carnal perspective of intimate power not entirely restricted to winning possession. In the first place, Yeats utilises the short but adequate sonnet form in order to convey the rapidity of the event itself without sacrificing space to present and discuss its importance. Much like Wyatt, Yeats designates the Petrarchan sonnet’s two quatrains for a description of action. Yet unlike Wyatt, who signals the volta by a change in tone at the outset of the sestet, Yeats begins with the swan’s climax as his poem’s volta. This action serves as a definitive point from which to discuss a final idea, that of the deed’s consequences. Meanwhile, the poem’s rhyme scheme decays parallel to the nearing of this act. Initially, the first quatrain retains a conventional rhyme with the only noteworthy change being the rich rhyme “caressed/breast” (2, 4). But the second contains a heightened combination of a rich rhyme, “thighs, lies” (6, 8), as well as a sight rhyme, “push/rush” (5, 7). Afterward, Yeats uses a visible caesura in line 11 to draw importance to the brief premonition of catastrophe upon the moment of fateful conception. But, Yeats proceeds with a traditional Petrarchan sestet rhyme scheme as a signal of a return to normality and, consequently, a sealed fate, until the final line’s dissatisfying sight rhyme, “up/drop” (11, 14). By ending the final question on an imperfect sound, Yeats draws attention to the unresolved nature of the poem, and emphasises his focus on rhetorical cries rather than the sonnet’s traditional resolution or consolance of the discussed issue.

Throughout the poem, Yeats uses visceral imagery to invoke an uneasy mixture of sexuality and violence. Although the dominant descriptive themes paint a clear alternating picture of force and victim, “blow/staggering” (1, 2), “caught/helpless” (3, 4), “brute/mastered” (12), Yeats also chooses a few unmistakably softer, more seductive descriptions such as “thighs caressed” (2) and “shudder in the loins” (9). This produces a message of desire unlike that of Wyatt or Spenser, who strictly remained within the thematic boundaries of possession and submission. Furthermore, Yeats uses diction associated with fear, helplessness, and force, however there lacks similarly forward mentions of intent or craving of the swan. Additionally, the actions described come from Leda’s own perception, such as the very first jolting line, “A sudden blow” (1), or the feeling of the swan’s “strange heart beating” (8), which describe what Leda herself feels and hears. The combination of these two effects brings the perspective of Leda closer rather than that of the swan, despite the uninvolvement of the speaker. Simply in this way alone, Yeats’s poem already holds a differing message from those of Wyatt and Spenser, who chose to make their speakers the male half of their pairs. Yeats’s reversal of roles with a human woman’s perspective of a male animal’s advance offers the idea of the male pursuer aligning more with primal motivation rather than a female doe’s naïve animalistic fear causing her to flee the hunter.

In conclusion, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, and W. B. Yeats take differing approaches to the sonnet’s form, but all use numerous literary techniques to illustrate their arguments. Although Spenser’s poem concludes inversely, both his and Wyatt’s extended metaphors of a hunt present desire as something to be won or lost, requiring one side to succumb. By switching the roles of the animal subject’s gender, Yeats adversely concludes that men’s power and motive is irrevocably intertwined with their more carnal nature. Through these scenarios, they each produce arguments dealing with separate themes of love and power. Wyatt asserts that love obeys the highest power with which it is confronted, while Spenser argues that love can take on a nature of its own and act indifferent to the power desiring it, but Yeats ultimately argues that power in love stems from primal desire. Overall, the representation of men and women as human and animal immediately incites a sense of opposition and love, or lust, as an affair to be conquered.

Works Cited

Spenser, Edmund. “Sonnet LXVII.” The Penguin Book of English Verse. Ed. Paul Keegan. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. 138-9. Print.

Wyatt, Thomas. “Who so list to hount I knowe where is an hynde” The Penguin Book of English Verse. Ed. Paul Keegan. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. 80. Print.

Yeats, W.B. “Leda and the Swan.” The Penguin Book of English Verse. Ed. Paul Keegan. London: Penguin Classics, 2005. 885. Print.