Sometime around 1535, Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and ambassador in the court of King Henry VIII, had a scribe copy into his personal commonplace book a poem that Wyatt had composed. The text was centered on the page and written out in “Secretary Hand,” an elaborate formal script often used for legal documents, in part because it was difficult to forge. Wyatt appears to have carried the book along with him on his diplomatic business all across Europe: its one hundred or so poems, including some of the most important English lyrics before Shakespeare, were written down and revised over time, in several hands and varieties of ink. Wyatt likely kept it by his side while in the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned in 1536 for adultery, and where—according to legend—he witnessed the execution of his lover, Anne Boleyn. He was probably carrying the book when he died of a fever in 1542, at the age of thirty-nine; his son, the rebel Thomas Wyatt the Younger, inherited the book, and passed it on to other members of his father’s circle before he was executed in 1554. The book is known as the Egerton manuscript, and now resides at the British Library.
“They Flee from Me” (the title was assigned by later editors) is one of fifty-nine poems in Wyatt’s notebook that he signed with his abbreviated signature, “Tho.,” in the margins. It is arguably the greatest English lyric poem of the sixteenth century. The poem has been mislaid and rediscovered many times in its history, but it survived its brushes with oblivion to become part of the foundation of English poetry. Wyatt’s notebook, with his own version of the poem, ended up in the hands of a friend and ally, Sir John Harington, who seems to have used it partly as scrap paper (the page containing “They Flee from Me” has math problems scrawled in the margin); an altered version, copied down during Wyatt’s lifetime by a member of his coterie, exists in a separate notebook. Still another, perhaps originating from Wyatt’s own draft, was published in 1557 in Richard Tottel’s Songs and Sonnets (often referred to as his Miscellany), the best-selling Elizabethan anthology.
In the eighteenth century, Wyatt’s notebook resurfaced when a member of the Harington family, capitalizing on a sudden demand for volumes of old poetry, found it mildewing on the shelves and passed it to Bishop Thomas Percy, an anthologist and friend of Samuel Johnson who was editing a new edition of Tottel’s Miscellany. In the twentieth century, a young Cleanth Brooks, who became a Yale professor and critic, helped edit Percy’s correspondence, and included “They Flee from Me” in his legendary textbooks An Approach to Literature and Understanding Poetry…
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