Poetry Corner and the Prof’s Pet Peeve

Anyone in my line of work will find some quirks, solecisms, or barbarisms more irritating than others. The particulars vary from writer to writer and from teacher to teacher, but we all have some little thing or things that will send us to Defcon One.

I’m not immune. One of my personal betes noires is the use of the singular “they.” Now in fact, we can trace this at least as far back as Chaucer, and in recent decades, the usage strikes many as a useful means of avoiding sexist sentence construction, replacing such choices as “s/he,” “he or she,” or the alternation of the masculine and feminine pronouns. (And for those of you keeping score, the generic “he” as a prescriptivist “rule” can really only be traced to 18th-C. efforts to “ascertain” the language.)

I get that, and I’m aware of the foolishness of trying to fix (as in “nail down”) the language in such a manner. Johnson recognized that; dare I do less? Still, the singular “they” grinds my gears, and I’ll mark it when I see it. (And I likewise know that my preference for the generic “he” likewise irritates some readers. Those readers, of course, are welcome to write their own blogs.)

What brought all this to mind this evening was my preparation for tomorrow’s Early Brit Lit class. We’ll be looking at Wyatt the Elder and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. I was refreshing my memory by reading one of Wyatt’s poems that means much to me:

They Flee From Me

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.
As anyone who has watched The Tudors probably knows, chastity was not in great supply at court during Wyatt’s time — remember, he was sent to the Tower under suspicion of plooking Anne Boleyn, and from there, watched the execution of Boleyn and five of her other putative lovers. (Fortunately, the Wyatts apparently had some pull with Thomas Cromwell.) So various interpretations of the poem read it as Wyatt complaining of experiencing a dry spell after prior promiscuity. These readings seem to rely on the first eight and a half lines, reading They in its various forms as a plural pronoun.
That first stanza-and-a-bit is something of an extended metaphor (what we in the English biz call a conceit), using animals and hunting as a metaphor for lovers and carrying on. The bulk of the poem seems to focus on a particular woman. And as I read it this evening, I wondered if that first section might be a usage of the singular they. If so, it seems to me that rather than a boast of a rakish score of affairs with the ladies (“[I]t hath been otherwise/ Twenty times better” (8-9)), Wyatt’s speaker may be referring to a series of liaisons with a particular woman, even as he reflects on a particular encounter (“once in special” (9)). And maybe it’s because I’m who I am, but I find the poem more satisfying as a recollection of a love that didn’t last, rather than a mere complaint about lost mojo. But like Philip Marlowe, I know it’s sentimental even as I say it.
So these are the things I think about on a Wednesday evening. In any case, I hope you like the poem — I do.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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