Practical Criticism: Class 1

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 themselves 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,
Therwith all 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.

First Impressions

It often helps when reading a poem to delay reaching conclusions about what it means or what you think of it. This enables you to build up a response to it by stages. A few quite humdrum initial observations about form, meaning, and metre can enable you to make some larger scale conclusions. This page aims to build up some straightforward observations. Later pages make more critical use of them.

  • What is the poem's form?

The poem is in a rhyming stanza ababbcc. (If you do not understand any of the technical terms, click on them for a definition). This is known as rhyme royal. It is a form often used by Chaucer, and by Shakespeare in his narrative poem Lucrece. There are traces of internal or half rhymes in 'danger' and 'range' which tie the two couplets closely to the initial quatrain. This is only found in the first stanza, however.

  • Are there any oddities in its metre?

The underlying metrical pattern appears to be a version of an iambic pentameter (a ten syllable line in which the stress falls on every second syllable). There are moments which clearly depart from this pattern, however, and several of these occur at moments of drama: line 15 ('It was no dream: I lay broad waking') contains only nine syllables, and the last is a feminine, or unstressed syllable. The caesura seems to take a disproportionate length of time, as though the speaker of the poem is pausing in amazement. A similar checking of the flow of the line occurs in line 9. There is clearly a great deal of flexibility in the treatment of the pentameter. Line 13, in particular, seems to contain only eight syllables.

  • Are there any words in it which you do not understand, or which are used in an unusual way?

Here we can cheat a little and use the Oxford English Dictionary (the shorter Oxford English Dictionary is the most useful reference work that you can use; it contains almost all of the definitions from the monumental OED without the illustrative quotations. The quotations in the longer OED can be very helpful for more advanced study, but the shorter OED serves very well for less specialised work).

'Guise' might not be familiar to you: OED gives two definitions which could fit this context: '† 1. Manner, method, way; fashion, style. Obs.' ('Obs.' means that it is an obsolete sense) and '† 6. Sc. A disguise, a mask. Also, a dance or performance in disguises or masks; a masquerade, a show.' So the whole phrase 'After a pleasant guise' could mean either 'in an agreeable manner' or 'after an elaborate entertainment.'

'Stalking' is interesting since OED shows that it can refer either to the action of a shy animal († 1. intr. To walk softly, cautiously, or stealthily...† b. said of an animal. Obs.) or of a hunter (2. †To go stealthily to, towards (an animal) for the purpose of killing or capturing it (obs.)). This poses a problem: are the creatures referred to here the hunted or the hunters?

'Fashion' presumably means 'manner'; but in a poem which makes so much of 'thin array', or fine clothes, there may be a secondary sense of 'modish dress'.

If you use a dictionary to help you in practical criticism then it is well worth looking up some words which you think you do understand, just to make sure that there are no obsolete or secondary senses of which you are not aware. In this poem there are several words which may not be used in their modern sense: 'danger' may mean 'peril', but there may also be an earlier sense in play: OED 1. † a: 'Power of a lord or master, jurisdiction, dominion; power to dispose of, or to hurt or harm.' That would mean that the creatures are not necessarily putting themselves at risk by taking bread from the speaker, but that they are putting themselves in his power.

The phrase 'arms long and small' is odd on first reading, since the modern senses of 'long' and 'small' are not compatible with each other. Another look at OED though reveals the obsolete sense of 'small': '1. a. Of relatively little girth or circumference in comparison with length; not thick, stout, or fleshy; slender, thin.'

In the third stanza a number of abstract nouns seem to be used with a peculiar emphasis. 'Gentleness' probably means '†good breeding, courtesy, affability (obs.); kindliness, mildness.' 'Goodness' - well, we all know what that means, but what does it mean here? The word seems almost to be sarcastic: 'she has graciously permitted me to go', the poem appears to say, which is a bitter way of describing the end of an affair. 'Newfangleness' is defined by the OED as 'The fact or state of being newfangled or new-fashioned; novelty, innovation', but it is used by Chaucer to mean 'fickleness'. So the lady has been given permission to be changeable or even fickle in love. And this is the result of her 'goodness' and the speaker's 'gentleness'. Those apparently beneficial moral attributes do not appear to be having good consequences for the speaker. This is something to think about in more detail when we reach our critical analysis of the poem.

  • Do you feel that you understand what it is about?

The problems with individual words which we have been exploring under the previous heading prepare for this much broader question. Before we can answer it we need to be clear what what we mean when we ask what a poem is 'about'.This is a different sort of question from the previous ones, since a poem can be 'about' a lot of things at once. It can be about a love-affair (and this poem seems to be about something of the kind) and about desire, or lust or perplexity or all of those things. In this particular poem the two levels of the question appear to interact with each other: it is not clear exactly what sort of scene is being described. It is also not clear entirely what the poet thinks about it.

Let us deal first with the easiest of these two questions. What sort of scene is being described? This is actually a very difficult question to answer: as in a dream you are not quite sure of who anyone is or exactly what they are doing. These problems begin in the first line. Who are 'they' in the first line? They take bread, like deer or birds, but 'they' seem also to be associated with the very specific woman referred to in stanza 2. We should note that this woman is also referred to only by a pronoun. The poem does not reveal enough to enable us to be sure oof her identity or her precise relation to the speaker, just as it does not reveal enough to allow us to be sure what 'they' are in the first line.

One important lesson about practical criticism emerges from these features of the poem: be content with doubts and uncertainties, since some poems do not reveal exactly what they are about, and this can be a major part of their effect. It is a good idea, however, to attempt to describe the areas of uncertainty in your responses as precisely as possible.

©Colin Burrow 1999