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...
(The entire section is 1443 words.)
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