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

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The first stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem titled “To Althea, from Prison” reads as follows:

When Love with unconfinèd wings

   Hovers within my Gates,

And my divine Althea brings

   To whisper at the Grates;

When I lie tangled in her hair,    [5]

   And fettered to her eye,

The Gods that wanton in the Air,

   Know no such Liberty.

 

These lines might be paraphrased in the following ways: when Cupid, with his freely flapping wings (in contrast to the speaker’s imprisonment, already mentioned in the poem’s title) hovers inside the gates of my prison; and when he brings my virtuous and beautiful beloved, Althea, to speak quietly to me through the bars of my cell; and when I am metaphorically tangled by the beauty of her hair and eye; then, when all these events occur, the divine beings (such as Cupid) who can freely fly in the air do not know the kind of liberty and freedom that I feel in my heart and mind, even though I am physically imprisoned.

These lines are important to the rest of the poem for a number of reasons. First, they introduce the theme of love, which will be an important motif throughout the work. The meaning and significance of the idea of love will expand, however, as the work develops. Secondly, they show the speaker’s appreciation of physical beauty. Later, his appreciation of other kinds of beauty will be implied.  Thirdly, by emphasizing the classical winged god Cupid, these lines ironically foreshadow the poem’s later emphasis on Christian winged messengers (angels). Finally, by emphasizing the consolations of gazing on physical beauty, these lines ironically foreshadow the higher, less material kinds of consolation the speaker will enjoy later in the poem.

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