By a small miracle, there are now two good history series running on BBC2 - Monday's The Plantagenets and Friday's A Very British Renaissance, presented by the suave art historian James Fox. Last night's programme featured Sir Thomas Wyatt's great poem They Flee From Me - in itself a powerful demonstration of an English literary renaissance under way in the reign of Henry VIII (though Wyatt's poems were not intended for publication and were only published some years after his death). Wyatt died of a sudden illness at the age of 39, having more than once had a narrow escape from the executioner's axe. Imprisoned in the Tower of London after being accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, he very probably watched from his cell window as she was beheaded, preceded by five men accused of being her lovers. Luckily for Wyatt, he had powerful protectors, and each fall from grace was followed by a return to favour. But there were other falls from favour from which there was no returning, as They Flee From Me makes clear..
When, last year, I was posting a personal Anthology, I was going to include this poem, partly because I still remember the electrifying impact it had on me when I first read it - at school, under the tutelage of the inspirational English teacher of whom I've written elsewhere. For many years I had it by heart, and can still, with an effort, retrieve it all. The first great (short) poem in the (modern) English language? Certainly the first great poem of its kind, influenced by Italian models but unmistakably English, in its intensity and frankness of address looking forward to the Metaphysicals, and thence to us, to whom this poem, nearly five centuries old, still speaks with astonishing directness.
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.