The first section of the First Part is about the making of "They Flee from Me" and its participation in the daily life of people nearby. It focuses on the manuscript books in which "They Flee from Me" is first recorded, the "Egerton" and "Devonshire" manuscripts, and describes the performance and transformation of traditional poetic modes that Thomas Wyatt accomplishes. It then moves to a discussion of the first printing of the poem in Tottel's Miscellany. This part ends with a discussion of the poem's lapsing out of culture and memory, conducted by considering a seventeenth-century user of the Egerton manuscript who wrote over and crossed out many of the poems. Broader questions about the functions of poetry are raised through a consideration of some algebra written next to the poem and a comparison of the languages of poetry and mathematics.
The Second Part begins by discussing the first reprinters of Thomas Wyatt's poetry, circa 1720, and uses these reprintings to present the many challenges and impossibilities involved in trying to represent the past accurately. It then moves to the story of the main focus of the Second Part, the eighteenth-century cleric and editor Thomas Percy, whose career provides an opportunity to show how reprinting old poetry gets entangled with the eighteenth-century project of nation and empire building. The troubled nature of Percy's work is dramatized through his bitter conflict with Joseph Ritson, a rival editor and a fierce, contrarian Jacobin. Percy also writes on the page in the Egerton manuscript on which "They Flee from Me" appears, and meditation on this use of the manuscript allows for broader consideration of issues of editing, printing, poetry, and personal ambition.
The Third Part traces the profound reanimation of old poetry that coincides with the invention of English Literature as a school subject. The first section of this part concerns George Frederic Nott, a gifted editor who comprehensively reprinted Wyatt's poetry and "They Flee from Me" along the way. Further reflection on the life of the Egerton manuscript provides a context for the entry of the manuscript into the British Library, its current home. This part concludes by discussing the work of Arthur Quiller-Couch, the editor of the Oxford Book of English Verse and the first Professor of English at Cambridge University. The modern University and its associated culture is depicted as a new kind of Court, and the Professor as a new kind of (cultural) courtier, using poetry as the subject and object of ambition.
In the twentieth century "They Flee from Me" becomes the Wyatt poem people know and reprint, when it becomes a kind of hero of the burgeoning industry of English teaching. This Part describes the full maturation of academic culture in the twentieth-century United States and the important place the study of old poetry was given in this culture. It focuses on Cleanth Brooks, a Yale English Professor who put "They Flee from Me" in his profoundly influential first textbook, in 1936. This Part argues that while methods have changed since the demise of Brooks and his "New" criticism, the reading and reprinting of old poetry are still primarily driven by the elaborate culture of testing, evaluation, and moral instruction, both for Professors and for students, resident in the contemporary education industry. The last reprinting considered at length is that of Stephen Greenblatt, in his era-creating Renaissance Self-Fashioning.
The final part meditates on several of the big questions that have been in play throughout the book. Is an old poem a form of heritable knowledge? Do people get "better" at poetry? Is it possible to be "right" when saying what an old poem is about and what function it had in the past? What kind of object does an old poem become when it is the target of schooling and evaluation? It argues that the reprinting of old poetry is always instrumental and always both wrong and right about the abject and triumphant individual old poem. It argues that "They Flee from Me" survived because it functions so well in the environment of the school and university—and that is because this environment is so similar to the (deadly, interesting) environment of Henry VIII's court.