Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
The broad outlines of Richard Lovelace’s life are easy enough to sketch, but when it comes to filling in the details, much remains conjectural. Born in 1618 either at the family manor of Bethersden, Woolwich, Kent, or in Holland, Lovelace was the eldest son of Sir William Lovelace and his wife, Anne (Barne). (The Woolwich church register does not commence until 1663.) His mother spent some time in Holland, where his father served under Sir Horace Vere and was later killed at the siege of Groll in 1627. Her references to her son Richard in her will make it seem likely that he was born while she was with her husband in the Low Countries.
Richard had four brothers, Thomas, Francis, William, and Dudley (the last of whom was responsible for seeing Lucasta: Posthume Poems through the press after his brother’s death), and three sisters, Anne, Elizabeth, and Johanna. There are no records of Lovelace’s childhood. In January, 1630, Lady Lovelace married Jonathan Brown or Browne of London, doctor of laws, and it may be presumed that the family’s fortunes were enhanced as a result. The poet was educated at Charterhouse and entered Gloucester Hall, now Worcester College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner in 1634.
By all accounts, the young scholar was handsome and amiable. In his second year, according to Anthony à Wood, a not very reliable authority in the case of Lovelace, he attracted the attention of an eminent lady of the queen, who prevailed on the archbishop of Canterbury, then chancellor of the university, to have him awarded a master of arts, though he was only of two years’ standing. The following year, Lovelace was at Cambridge University, where he met several young men then in residence who were to contribute commendatory verses to Lucasta twelve years later; among them was Andrew Marvell.
Upon leaving the university, Lovelace joined the court, where he attracted the attention of George, Lord Goring, later earl of Norwich, and was sent by him as an ensign in the first expedition against the Scots in 1639, under the earl of Northumberland. During the second of these ineffectual campaigns, he was commissioned captain. Although he apparently wrote the tragedy titled The Soldier during the second campaign, the only direct reference to the Scottish campaigns is the drinking song “To General Goring, after the pacification of Berwick.” Among those who rode northward with Lovelace was the poet Sir John Suckling, whose “Ballad upon a Wedding” is traditionally thought to address Lovelace, although there is little, if any, substantive evidence for the attribution.
Following the Scottish campaigns, Lovelace returned to Kent and took possession of the family estates. In late April, 1642, he helped deliver the Kentish Petition to the House of Commons, for which he was confined in prison for perhaps as long as two months. The petitioners could not have hoped for any response less severe, especially as a similar petition of the previous month on behalf of the bishops and the liturgy had been ordered burned by the common hangman. In June, Lovelace was released on bail from his confinement, provided he remain in close communication with the Speaker of the House. Although he was forbidden to take an active role in the struggle between the king and Parliament, he outfitted his brothers Francis and William with men and money to aid the royalist cause and arranged for his younger brother, Dudley, to study tactics and fortification in Holland.
Lovelace probably spent the greater part of the years 1643-1646 in Holland and France. His departure may have occasioned the lyric “To Lucasta, going beyond the seas.” In Holland, he presumably learned the language and acquired an appreciation of the world of art then flourishing, with Rembrandt at the height of his powers. Lovelace was present at the siege of Dunkirk in 1646, where he was wounded. A year later, he was back in London and was admitted with the Dutch-born portraitist Peter Lely to the Freedom of the Painters’ Company. In 1648, he and his brother were taken as prisoners to Peterhouse in London, possibly as a precautionary measure because of their past activities and the turbulent state of affairs in Kent at the time. It was during this second confinement, apparently, that he prepared his lyrics for publication in 1649. He was discharged on April 10, 1649, some ten months after his incarceration. During the year, Lovelace sold what remained of his family estates, including the family portraits, among which was one of himself by an unknown artist. These later came to Dulwich College.
Virtually nothing is known of Lovelace’s activities in the years preceding his death, which occurred sometime before October, 1657, the date of the publication of Eldred Revett’s Poems, which contained an elegy on Lovelace. Wood provides an account of Lovelace’s last days and death. It has achieved popularity as suiting the legend of the man, but that Lovelace died a miserable death in utter poverty seems less than likely. Fifteen months before his death he wrote “The Triumphs of Philamore and Amoret” for the celebration of the marriage of his friend Charles Cotton. The poem, itself, may account for Wood’s version of Lovelace’s wretched end. Its references to Cotton’s aid, however, “when in mine obscure cave/ (Shut up almost close prisoner in a grave)/ Your beams could reach me through this vault of night,” would seem not to call for Wood’s exaggerated description of the event. That Lovelace’s fortune and fortunes were gravely reduced by the end seems clear. He would hardly have been alone in facing such hardships. There were friends to help, and it is unlikely that such abject poverty would not have been hinted at, had it occurred, in the various elegies occasioned by the publication in 1659 of Lucasta: Posthume Poems. The community of lettered friends was closely knit and evidence exists that discounts the implications of Wood’s narrative. The poet Thomas Stanley, Lovelace’s kinsman, had helped several needy and deserving poets and royalists, among them Sir Edward Sherburne, John Hall, and Robert Herrick. Cotton clearly assisted Lovelace in his time of need, and it is well known that Marvell tirelessly aided Milton in the early years of the Restoration. These are examples of the kind of support that surely would have been available to such an important gentleman and poet. Lovelace’s place of burial, in Wood’s account, was “at the west end of the Church of Saint Bride, alias Bridget, in London, near to the body of his kinsman William.” The church was completely destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 along with any records that could verify the place of burial.