How might one explain the opening stanza of the poem "To Althea, from Prison," by Richard Lovelace?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The opening stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Althea, from Prison” can be explicated as follows:


WHEN love with unconfined wings

When Cupid, the classical god of love (who is usually depicted as a young boy who has wings and is therefore capable of flying freely)


Hovers within my Gates;

hovers within the gates of the prison in which I am presently confined


And my divine Althea brings

and when Cupid brings the virtuous and beautiful woman whom I love, whose name is Althea (and whose name, in Greek, means “healer”)


To whisper at the Grates;

so that she can whisper to me through the iron grates of my prison cell


When I lye tangled in her haire

and when I lie tangled in her hair (either literally or perhaps only metaphorically, since it is hard to imagine at first how he, while imprisoned, can lie tangled in her hair literally [although see comments below])


And fettered to her eye;

and when I am imprisoned by looking at her beautiful eye(s),


The Gods that wanton in the Aire,

Then (I have to declare) that (even) the gods that are free to fly through the air


Know no such liberty.

Do not possess the kind of freedom that I possess.

The line in this poem that causes the most interpretive difficult is the line declaring that the speaker lies “tangled” in the hair of Althea.  The verb “lye” implies that he is not merely touching her hair but that somehow he is touching it as they lie together. Prisoners in the seventeenth century, especially those who were prominent or wealthy, could often have visitors to their cells, and so perhaps this fact explains how Althea might actually have lain with the speaker in his cell. Or perhaps the speaker uses the word “tangled” in a merely metaphorical sense: as he gazes upon her hair, he feels tangled in it.  The verb “lye,” however, seems very literal.


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