Although chiefly remembered for a handful of exquisite lyrics celebrating what Douglas Bush called the Cavalier trinity of beauty, love, and honor, Richard Lovelace has gradually risen to critical attention. Written for the most part against the somber landscape of England during the Civil War and Interregnum, Lovelace’s poetry asserts more complex concerns and more authentic attitudes than those usually attributed to that “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.” Lovelace was decidedly a literary amateur in the Renaissance tradition of the courtier, and his sensibilities were deepened and roughened by the calamities that befell him, his cause, and his king. “To Althea, from Prison,” and “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” are justly admired along with a few other frequently anthologized pieces, but the achievement is considerably larger than their slight number and scope might suggest. In his ode “The Grasshopper,” for example, written to his friend Charles Cotton, Lovelace fashions from an emblematic examination of the fate of that “poor verdant fool” an affirmation of human friendship that transcends particular circumstance and achieves an authentic tragic tone. In the lines written “To my worthy friend Mr. Peter Lely, on that excellent picture of his Majesty and the Duke of York, drawn by him at Hampton Court,” Lovelace evokes the “clouded majesty” of King Charles I, transforming a typical genre piece describing a painting into a somber elegiac on human dignity and courage in the face of adversity.
Like most of his fellow Cavalier poets, Lovelace was indebted to the poetry of Ben Jonson and John Donne. To Jonson, he owed what graciousness and form he achieved, especially in the choice of classical models. To Donne, he owed some degree of intellectual toughness and delight in what ingenious conceits he could master. To the limitations of both, in different ways, he was indebted for those infelicities of style that came with too much striving and too much care. Among his immediate contemporaries, he was no doubt influenced by his relative, the translator Thomas Stanley, who may have helped him in more substantial matters than verse. Other poets with whom Lovelace shared stylistic affinities and thematic concerns were Robert Herrick, Sir John Suckling, and Andrew Marvell.