Study Guide

To Althea, From Prison

by Richard Lovelace

To Althea, From Prison Summary

Summary and Analysis

The poem by Richard Lovelace (1618-1657) titled “To Althea, from Prison” presents a speaker who discusses various kinds of consolations that allow him to cope with his imprisonment. These consolations permit him to feel psychological liberty even though physically he is behind bars. (Lovelace himself was imprisoned for political offenses; he was a “royalist” when the monarch was in conflict with parliament.) In stanza one, the speaker feels a kind of liberty when he interacts with his beloved Althea (a conventional name for a beautiful woman in this era). In stanza two he feels the sort of freedom that can result from drinking alcohol with others, including (presumably) male friends. In stanza three, the speaker anticipates feeling a kind of liberty when he celebrates the virtues of his king (almost certainly a reference to King Charles I, to whom Lovelace remained loyal throughout the English Civil Wars of the 1640s). Finally, in stanza four, the speaker declares that although a prison can confine the body, nothing can confine the innocent mind and the soul that loves God.

Interestingly, the poem moves outward and upward in the kinds of consolations it extols, first emphasizing romantic love, then non-sexual friendship, then political allegiance, and finally religious dedication. It is as if the speaker is ascending a kind of neo-Platonic ladder, moving from the physical to the spiritual, from the earthly to the heavenly. All four kinds of consolation are satisfying, but clearly the poem implies that heavenly consolation is ultimately the highest, best, and most enduring. Ironically, a poem whose title suggests that it is merely a romantic love song finally becomes a celebration of God.

Lines 1 and 2 already introduce two main themes of the work: the contrast between liberty (represented here by “Love”—that is, Cupid, who can fly freely) and confinement (represented by the “Gates” that imprison the speaker). Cupid is a mythic, imaginary god, and thus the reference to him foreshadows the allusion to the real, true, Christian God emphasized in the final stanza. Cupid is a god who symbolizes merely earthly, physical love; the God alluded to at the end of the poem is the God of genuine spiritual love, the only kind that ultimately mattered to Renaissance Christians. Similarly, the “divine” (or beautiful and perhaps virtuous) Althea mentioned in line 3 pales in significance beside the Christian God implicitly celebrated in the poem’s last stanza.

In line 4, the speaker mentions that Althea “whisper[s]” to him through the “Grates” or bars of his prison cell. Her whispering implies her grace and delicacy but also, perhaps, her sense of the danger of her visit. The speaker implies that his appreciation of her earthly beauty is itself a kind of imprisonment: he mentions being “tangled in her hair” (5) and “fettered to her eye” (6; emphases added). Such confinement, of course, is physically pleasing, especially in contrast to being locked behind bars, but this phrasing may already suggest that he needs to move above and beyond his attraction to Althea’s body if he hopes to attain a higher, truer kind of freedom. Stanza one ends by alluding to the imaginary “Gods that wanton in the Air” (7)—another ironic foreshadowing, perhaps, of the final stanza’s focus on the real, genuine God who lives in heaven.

Stanza two opens by alluding to plentiful cups of wine, undiluted by the waters of the River Thames (which runs through the heart of...

(The entire section is 1443 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear