For a poet associated with lyric brevity, one whose poetry compresses paradox and intrigue into tightly bound forms, this extensive four-part study devoted to a single, short Wyatt poem—“They Flee from Me” (three stanzas, barely fifty words each)—would seem to be a wanton, disproportionate splurge. Yet Murphy's book amply justifies its length, coupling a thorough reconstruction of the poem's longue durée with a briskness and fizz that propel its critical narrative along. Tracing the poem's evolution from first principles (consonant with the series title, Square One) and for a general, intellectually curious readership, this study meticulously maps the eddies and currents that have defined this vexing poem's vexed history of neglect, rediscovery, and canonization, which Murphy persuasively frames as a process of maturation. Rather than a static bequest to literary history, this poem, by virtue of its enduring capacity to surprise and perplex (who or what, in a “centuries-long scholarly puzzling,” is “stalking” ?), evolves over time, in an ongoing tussle with both time and the forces of cultural entropy, obsolescence, and oblivion.
The book reconstructs the poem's composition and reception history in four parts, a history of vacillating attitudes about its value and about literary value itself. Is this poem “exceptional” (208)? Are its irregularities “a sign of genius or incompetence” (212)? Part 1 singles out the poem in Wyatt's personal Egerton Manuscript as “a virtuoso performance” (20) composed within and against the conventions of rhyme royal poetry of love and regret, before Murphy traces the poem's transmission through variant versions in manuscript and print (notably Tottel's Miscellany). Part 2 assesses how the poem was handled by eighteenth-century editors (often wrangling with each other) in a narrative of crucial but chance interventions, from Edmund Curll's reprinting of the poem in “Antique Dress” (82) to Thomas Percy's annotations—an “antientropic Event” (90)—which bestowed an aggrandizing “Classic Elegance” (106) on it, to Henry Harington's “accidental” (109) browsing in a library that helped inscribe Wyatt's poem within “a conceptual structure . . . literature” (110). Citing commercial motives for the perpetuation of Tottel's version (not Wyatt's original) in print anthologies, Murphy surveys the poem's afterlife over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in part 3, dwelling on the staggering, singlehanded erudition of G. F. Nott—instrumental in recovering the “messy primal energy” (134) of the original manuscript, as was, a century later, Agnes Foxwell, the “first woman to record her thinking about our poem since the 1530s” (154). From these first signs of institutionalized critical attention and the emergence in classrooms of a “professorial ‘They Flee from Me’” (156), part 4 charts the poem's twentieth-century afterlife in American universities, spurred by New Critics’ enchantment with the poem (Brooks, Warren) and sustained by later critical responses (Stein, Greenblatt).
Part close reading of the poem's riddling, “unfinished quality” that withholds explanation (62); part book history of the text's material incarnations throughout its “object-life” (3), including an anonymous thumb-print smudge left in a Tudor manuscript copy; and part critical heritage assessing the competing ideological appeals of historicism and presentism, Murphy's study combines scholarly attentiveness with a wry air of amused curiosity—hence such subheadings as “(Vegetarians)” (118) or “Moving On, Sort Of” (203). Grippingly unusual, this book conveys something of the Egerton Manuscript's layered hybridity: an amalgam of text and image, peppered with fragmentary, gnomic headings and samples of unnamed handwriting. Among Murphy's strengths is his attentiveness to the poem's materiality—its chance survival (“Thancked be fortune”) through layers of accretions (Cossicke algebra, moral maxims, diary entries, children's doodles) and its endurance as much because, as in spite, of the genealogy of corruptions and errors that have dogged its reproduction and curation: “thinne” becomes “thine” (86); “me” becomes “we” (88); “she” is added (143); “heart” dropped (180). The poem's history, Murphy deftly shows, is of a private poem becoming a public commodity, and of what is vibrant being deadened and frozen by the very mechanisms seeking to preserve texts. This poem of remembering and forgetting, of intense immediacy and loss, of the simultaneous appeal and threat of “newfangleness,” is itself, as it transmigrates through different kinds of objecthood, the product of remembering, forgetting, and re-remembering. This study will play no small role in ensuring its continued remembrance.