They Flee From Me by Thomas Wyatt
Length: 3264 words (9.3 double-spaced pages)
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Set of Multiple-choice Questions Analyzing a Poem
Sir Thomas Wyatt's sixteenth-century lyric "They flee from me" is an enigmatic poem that pleases at least partly because it provides no final certainty about the situation it describes. Yet the poem, while in some respects indefinite and puzzling, is nevertheless quite specific in its presentation of a situation, particularly in the second stanza, and it treats a recognizable human experience--that of having been forsaken by a lover--in an original and intriguing fashion.
They flee from me, that sometime did me seek
with naked foot stalking in jay chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That now are wild, and do not remember
(5) 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 bath been otherwise
Twenty times better, but once in special,
(10) 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, *
Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, 'Dear heart, how like you this?'
(15) 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.
(20) But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
*manner or style
The image developed in the first stanza is especially striking, with its suggestion of once tame and friendly animals who have reverted to wildness and will no longer risk the seemingly innocent taking of bread from the speaker's hand. This stanza establishes at once the theme of change, a change from a special, privileged condition to one of apparent mistrust or fear, and the sense of strangeness (no explanation is given for the change) that will continue to trouble the speaker in the third stanza. Strangeness is inherent in the image itself -- "with naked foot stalking in my chamber" - -- and the stanza is filled with pairs of words that reinforce the idea of contrast: "flee"/"seek," "tame"/"wild," "sometime"/"now," "take break"/"range." Most interestingly, we are never told who "they" are.
Moving from this somewhat disconcerting description of the speaker's present situation, the second stanza abruptly shifts the reader to an earlier moment in the speaker's life when "Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise/Twenty times better.
" There follows the description of another privileged moment, an explicitly particular moment this time, that is fixed in the speaker1s memory. Wyatt's evocation of this intimate scene, with its overtones of eroticism, is subtly lyrical in its rhythms and yet quite straightforward and direct. We are not given the speaker's reply to the lady's playful question, but the tone of the lines and the obvious fondness with which the speaker regards the incident give the description a compelling charm and authenticity.
The first line of the third stanza confirms this sense of lived experience with two colloquial statements affirming the reality of that dreamlike moment. But the realization that such an enchanting scene did in fact take place only brings the speaker back to the hard reality of the present. He blames (and at the same time absolves) himself by attributing the change in affections to his own "gentleness," but, as in the first stanza, can find no clear reason for his present condition. It is, he says, the result of a "strange fashion of forsaking," a "newfangleness" on the part of the lady. The final couplet, with its ironic and ambiguous "kindly" (although in the sixteenth century "kyndely" could mean "after the law of kind or nature," it also had its modern sense) is complex in its suggestion of disappointment, resignation, curiosity, and aplomb. The lover, although forsaken, is not completely embittered or heartbroken. His potential self-pity has been distilled into a critically philosophical commentary on the lady who, while clearly guilty of unkindness, cannot be utterly condemned for her "newfangleness" because its cause remains strange and unexplained.
The basic purpose or a set of multiple-choice questions on a poem like "They flee from me" is to test a student's ability to read the text with understanding and to be aware of the ways in which the poet uses language to produce various effects. The questions do not differ, therefore, from many of the questions that a classroom teacher night ask a group of students in the course of an analytical discussion of the poem. Such a discussion might include questions about the dramatic situation (or situations) presented in the poem. about the relationship between stanzas (structure), about the imagery and its coherence or tack of it, about the contribution of syntax and rhythm to meaning, about diction and tone, about irony and ambiguity Almost all of these elements can be treated using a multiple-choice format. Obviously, there are some aspects of the poem that cannot be dealt with effectively using multiple-choice questions, and the psychological response of individual students to the imagery or to the situation presented in the poem can be most successfully dealt with in essays or discussions which allow for a fuller treatment of the nuances, contradictions and enigmas that the reader discovers in the text. What the set of multiple-choice questions presents, however, is at least part of the preliminary analysis that a reader must necessarily undertake before he or she settles upon a reading of the poem- Who is speaking? What is his or her point of view? How is the poem organized? Are there recurring patterns of imagery, diction, or syntax? In preparing to answer such questions, a student is preparing not merely to take a test but to respond with sensitivity and acuity to the literary texts that he or she may read in the future.
The set of questions that follows, written by a specialist in Renaissance literature, was reviewed and revised several times by others of similar background. It was then "pretested" -- administered to a group of students in English courses at several colleges -- in order to provide two important statistics for each question. The first is an index of difficulty, as determined by the percentage of students in the group who chose the correct answer; the second is an index of discrimination which indicates the extent to which the question discriminated between the most and least able students taking the test, with ability being determined by the students' performance on the test as a whole (35 questions on two poems). A question is said to discriminate well when the group that chooses the correct answer also has a clearly higher score on the entire test than any of the groups choosing the other options. As a result of this pretesting, the questions may be revised further to eliminate ambiguities in wording or to change one of the five choices that, on a given question, might have misled a substantial number of very able students. In short, the pretest is a test of the questions rather than of the students. When the Development Committee and the test specialists from Educational Testing Service (ETS) are satisfied that each question contains only one "best" answer, the set is ready for use on an AP examination. The following set of questions on the Wyatt poem was part of the 1979 AP English Literature and Composition Examination.
1. The central ambiguity in stanza 1 stems from the
(A) strange behavior of women
(B) identity of "they"
(C) ideas of danger and change
(D) image of the naked foot
(E) contrast between danger and meekness
The first question presents as a given that the first stanza of the poem contains a central ambiguity and asks the student to identify its source. Clearly, the most puzzling aspect of the stanza is the identity of "they," and 63% of the students chose that option. These students, as a group, also had a higher score on the test as a whole (which included other passages and poems) than did any of the groups that chose the other options. "They" is particularly ambiguous because it might refer to human beings or to animals, and, in fact, "they" are not identified or referred to again in the rest of the poem. A group of 19% (the next largest group) chose option (A), "strange behavior of women." The stanza does not include any mention of women, but these students may have been interpreting "they" as women in view of the scene with the woman in stanza two, thus eliminating a central ambiguity rather than identifying one. Options (C), (D), and (E), while all present in the first stanza, are not sources of ambiguity and were chosen by 4%, 1%, and 10% of the students respectively. Three percent of the students chose not to answer this question.
2. All of the following reinforce the imagery in stanza 1 EXCEPT
(A) "stalking" (line 2)
(B) "tame" (line 3)
(C) "remember" (line 4)
(D) "bread" (line 6)
(E) "range" (line 6)
This question asks students to identify words that, together, reinforce the imagery in stanza one. The imagery itself is not identified, so the students must try to define it and then to determine which words among the five options support or contribute to that imagery. The words "stalking," "tame," "bread," and "range" all help to define and reinforce the suggested image of animals being fed; "remember" is the one word that does not fit the image and it was identified as such by 64% of the candidates. (As on all questions in this set, the group choosing the right answer had a higher mean score on the entire multiple-choice section of the test than did the other groups.) This question tests the ability of readers to recognize a pattern of related words or images that work together to provide meaning in the poem.
3. Which of the following best describes the event in stanza 2?
(A) Sentimental and maudlin
(B) Symbolic and religious
(C) Comic and surprising
(D) Erotic and sensual
(E) Vulgar and insincere
Question 3 calls for a judgment about the nature of the event described in the second stanza. One should remember that what is asked for is the best answer among five options, not necessarily the ultimate correct description of the nature of the event, if such a response were possible. Here, 72% of the candidates saw that (D), "Erotic and sensual," was a more accurate description of the scene than any of the other choices. Although the speaker recalls the scene fondly, it would be an exaggeration to qualify the description as "maudlin" (A), and there is nothing religiously symbolic (B), comic (C), or vulgar and insincere (E) about the scene. The frankness with which the scene is depicted helps to make it convincing. Despite the apparent subjectivity in making such a decision, the choices given made this an easy question for the students.
4. The question "Dear heart, how like you this?" (line 14) can best =
be described as
(A) open and insecure
(B) playful and inviting
(C) probing and melancholy
(D) ironic and cruel
(E) demanding and sarcastic
In keeping with their accurate perception of stanza two, 84% of the students were able to qualify line 14 as "playful and inviting." The next largest group chose (A), "open and insecure," perhaps because of "open," but, once again, the other options made the best answer stand out rather clearly. Testing for tone is always tricky, but recognizing the tone of this line and understanding the nature of the scene itself do not call for great powers of discrimination from the candidates. Subtler and more personal characterizations of the scene would best be handled in an individual essay on the poem.
5. The details of stanza 2 especially emphasize the woman's
Question 5, answered correctly by 67% of the students, required an examination of the details of stanza two in order to arrive at a characterization of the woman's behavior. What is most striking, of course, is her assertiveness (C). It is she who initiates the action, catches the speaker in her arms, kisses him, and poses her playful question. The speaker is the object of her affection and plays a completely passive role. Very few students saw the woman as arrogant (A) or witty (D), since what she does is intimate and inviting and what she says a commonplace. Six percent chose "fastidiousness" as her main characteristic, with no apparent justification since she seems rather negligee both in behavior and attire, while 18% saw her as meek, perhaps because they replaced the active picture that Wyatt provides with a more stereotypical image but one unsupported by the details of the stanza.
6. In line 17, "forsaking" reinforces all of the following EXCEPT
(A) "flee" (line 1)
(B) "range" (line 6)
(C) "change" (line 7)
(D) "waking" (line 15)
(E) "turned" (line 16)
Question 6 is similar to Question 2 in that it requires the reader to discover a unifying device, a pattern of similarity in the diction of the poem. It also indirectly identifies the theme of forsaking that is central to the poem and asks students to choose one word among five taken from lines 1-16 that does not help to suggest this theme. Sixty-one percent--by far the ablest group among the candidates--saw that (D), "waking," had nothing to do with this central theme. The other four options proved about equally attractive to groups of equally less able candidates for the obvious reason that these words -- "flee," range," "change," and "turned" -- are all indeed related to the idea of forsaking. Again, this question obliges a reader not to make an interpretation of the poem but to identify a pattern that helps to define its meaning.
7. The phrase "use newfangleness" (line 19) is best interpreted to mean
(A) seek for novelty
(B) act with caution
(C) behave carnivorously
(D) renew previous vows
(E) employ her inventiveness
This is a reading question that requires the student to choose the closest equivalent for the phrase "use newfangleness" in the context of stanza three. Forty percent of the students chose (A), "seek for novelty." From Chaucer's time to the present, "newfangled" has signified "excessively novel or modish." A reader sensitive to connotation would be aware of the negative implications of the word even outside the context of the poem. In this stanza, the speaker's point is that the woman has deserted him and is behaving like the "they" in the first stanza who are "Busily seeking with a continual change." The only other choice that was attractive to a large (44%) but less-able group of candidates was (E), "employ her inventiveness." These candidates either missed the speaker's critical irony towards the woman or associated "newfangleness" with inventiveness (as in the phrase "newfangled invention") rather than with the fickleness and infatuation with novelty that the word actually denotes. An interpretation that sees the woman's "inventiveness" as the focus of stanza three would be difficult to support using the details provided by the speaker.
8. All of the following contribute to the narrative quality of the poem EXCEPT the
(A) speech-like rhythm of lines 3-6
(B) use of reminiscence, beginning "but once in special" (line 9)
(C) use of "and" as the first word in many lines
(D) interruption with a defensive comment (line 15)
(E) ironic implications of lines 20-21
This question proved to be the most difficult of the set for the Advanced Placement candidates taking the exam. Answered correctly by a very able group comprising 30% of the total number of candidates, the question tells the student that the poem has a "narrative quality," that is, that there is a speaker recounting incidents in time. In fact, the speaker uses both description and narration, and includes personal comments on his situation. This question asks the reader to notice the elements that give the poem the quality of personal narrative, or rather to eliminate from the five choices the one element that does not. The first four options all describe aspects of the poem that suggest this narrative quality; only (E), "ironic implications of lines 20-21," although an accurate observation about the lines, does not contribute to this quality, since irony may occur in many other contexts. This question may have been difficult because it required students first to interpret the phrase "narrative quality" (not a precise literary term) and then to examine each of the options for what it might contribute to the "sense of storytelling." The best students were probably also familiar with the concept of irony and realized that it was not a technique specific to the narrative mode.
9. Which of the following does NOT indicate the time when an action described in the poem took place?
(A) "sometime" (line 1)
(B) "sometime" (line 5)
(C) "now" (line 6)
(D) "once" (line 9)
(E) "since" (line 20)
This question directs the student's attention to the importance of time in the poem. As we have mentioned, a structural element in the poem is the contrast between "then" and "now." Options (A), (B), and (D) all refer to previous (happier) time and option (C) to the strange and disappointing present. Option (E), "since," means, in line 20, "inasmuch as" and, of course, does not serve to define a time sequence. Sixty-six percent of the students answered this question correctly.
Question 9, like questions 2, 6, and 8 in this set, requires the student to choose not a single correct characterization about an aspect of the poem but a single element that is not true or not part of a pattern. Questions like these, although they require a mental shifting of gears by the student (who is alerted to their difference in format by the words "NOT" or "EXCEPT"), are extremely useful for getting at the multiple meanings of literary language or at patterns of repetition in a poem or prose passage. Images and words in literature often suggest more than a single meaning or connotation, and this reversal of the typical multiple-choice format allows the testmaker to deal with rhetorical patterns, with unifying structural elements, and to some degree with the polysemous nature of literary language.
10. Which of the following is most clearly ironic in tone?
(A) "Busily" (line 7)
(B) "sweetly" (line 13)
(C) "waking" (line 15)
(D) "strange" (line 17)
(E) "kindly" (line 20)
This final question in the set asks the student to recognize the irony in the use of the word "kindly" in line 20. Seventy-one percent of the candidates chose the correct answer. To do so they had to look carefully at five words that appear in the poem between lines 7 and 20 and notice that an ironic tone (which may also color lines 18 and 19) is present only in the last of these; the other words are part of the straightforward description and narration. Being aware of this tone is, of course, an essential part of understanding the complexity of the attitudes contained in Wyatt's poem.=20
As has been said before, these questions constitute not a definitive interpretation of the poem but a test of a student's ability to do some of the preliminary work necessary for arriving at a reading or interpretation. They oblige the student to look closely at the text and to notice how his or her own experience of the poem is shaped and guided by Wyatt's artistry.