To most readers, Richard Lovelace is remembered for two lines from each of two songs. He voiced for all those spirits who have suffered in prison, who have thought or composed thoughts in jails, the perfect expression of the free will when he wrote “Stone Walls doe not a Prison make,/ Nor I’ron bars a Cage,” and he expressed his own high standards as a gentleman, soldier, scholar, and poet in lines he wrote when going off to war: “I could not love thee (Deare) so much,/ Lov’d I not Honour more.”
A Royalist by birth and politics and a Cavalier by style, Lovelace lost a modest fortune in the English Civil War (1642-1650). He suffered imprisonment twice, and he spent much of his life surrounded by war’s tragedies. He lost his father and a brother in battle. He himself fought in King Charles I’s ill-fated Scottish expeditions of 1639-1640 and then for England’s allies in Holland, attaining the rank of colonel.
Lovelace was an amateur poet, a man of action whose education made of him a man of many parts. He has been compared to the Elizabethan soldier-poet, Sir Philip Sidney, “A Scholar, Souldier, Lover, and a Saint,” as one epitaph verse reads. His poetry, of limited popularity, was virtuous and modest by Cavalier standards. His most famous series, Lucasta (a name taken from the Latin lux casta, or “light of virtue”), is his testimonial.
No conclusive evidence has yet come to light concerning the Lucasta of Lovelace’s two volumes of verse, though it is unlikely that this idealized figure was Lucy Sacheverell, as was first thought. The woman to whom Lovelace addressed many of his poems may have been a Lucas, however, making the name a play on words.
Lovelace’s varied activities and tastes led sometimes to the exercise of a talent thinly spread, to poor taste, or (especially) to haste—Lovelace’s literary sin. His first volume so lacked care and proofreading as to contain errors that were evident even at a time of variable spellings, indifferent typography, and fanciful punctuation. The poems were not arranged chronologically, stanzas were not collated, and the entire edition bespoke a lack of professionalism. Despite these weaknesses, Lovelace was well regarded. As a contemporary said of him, “He writes very well for a gentleman.” His noble sentiments attracted readers.
In addition to varied types of poems, Lovelace wrote at least one produced play, The Scholar(s) (pr. 1636?), the prologue and epilogue of which appear in his first collection. Another play, The Soldier (wr. 1640), a tragedy, was never produced because of the closing of the theaters in 1642. During the period of the Protectorate, songs by Lovelace were probably sung in masques, which were dramas produced privately for an aristocratic audience.
Lovelace wrote in the age of the conceit, or extended metaphor. He employed conceits that incorporated the witty and often barbed imagery popularized by John Donne and other Metaphysical poets, but he was less skillful in their use. His two famous songs, written also in an age of words set to music, surpass those of his betters, but on moral rather than poetic grounds: “To Althea, from Prison” demonstrates Lovelace’s indomitable spirit, forming part of a larger noble literature written from prison. Lovelace himself wrote other poems from prison, but they are fairly political and need detailed knowledge of the period to be understood.
The “Althea” poem is a song consisting of four octave stanzas. It illustrates Lovelace’s musicality, as the stanzas were set by John Wilson and were sung. The stanzas consist of alternating tetrameters and trimeters, following a rhyme scheme of ababcdcd. Lovelace treats various paradoxes associated with liberty and confinement, the first being love. Even though the poet sees himself in a traditional way, entangled in his beloved’s hair, his soul still feels freer than the birds soaring in the sky, as it too soars in the joy of being in love. Already in the first stanza, he hints at a literal prison. Perhaps Althea has come to visit him there. If not, perhaps the hint is a reference to the body as prison, a well-known Platonic image.
The second stanza suggests...
(The entire section is 1746 words.)