(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Richard Lovelace’s name has epitomized the supposed values of the world he inhabited, while its later link with Samuel Richardson’s villain in Clarissa (1747-1748) has added guilt by association. The poet was, however, neither villain nor fop. Whatever glitter or romance touched his poems was incidental to a career dominated by darkness and despair, against which he strove with considerable stoicism. Indeed, although the themes of love, friendship, and retirement appear frequently in his poems (along with an informed and highly cultivated notion of the role of the arts of music, painting, and literature in relation to the good life), a pervasive sense of disillusionment and tragic isolation gives the best of them a keen edge. More than one critic has noted a claustrophobic sense of entrapment that is never far from the surface of his work. The traditional themes of what Earl Miner calls the “social mode of cavalier poetry” celebrate the good life, the ruins and remedies of time, the ordering process of art set against the disorder of the age, and the special values of love and friendship in the face of loss. Yet the Cavaliers were forced increasingly to survive in a winter world, like that characterized by Lovelace in “The Grasshopper,” a poem that has received considerable critical attention in recent years.

“The Grasshopper”

In this poem, as in “The Snail,” “The Ant,” and “A Fly Caught in a Cobweb,” Lovelace turns to the emblems of nature for lessons that bespeak the necessary fortitude of all life faced with the inevitable process of mutability. He shares his desire to fashion ethical and political statements of an allegorical kind by means of a microscopic examination of the natural world with other poets of his time, particularly Andrew Marvell, although the Anacreontic strain was most fully exploited by the royalist writers Thomas Stanley, Robert Herrick, and Abraham Cowley. Of the various reasons for examining the tiny creatures of the natural world, foremost was the wish to draw comparisons with the world of affairs amounting to little more than thinly veiled subversive propaganda. Although Lovelace and his fellow royalists were fascinated by the delicate craftsmanship that art shared with nature, “The Grasshopper” emerges as both a political and an ethical warning, as well as a pattern for refined artistry. The dual impulses in the poem, indeed, threaten its unity. In the end, it is only by recourse to paradox that Lovelace holds the disparate elements together.

In their enterprise to reinforce the royalist position by examples drawn from the world of nature, Lovelace and his fellow poets could not claim a monopoly on the material. Rebellion employed its own arguments from nature in support of human rights. When all else failed, the royalists found that their best alternative was a return to the nature found on what country estates were left to them, where they accepted a life of enforced retirement with whatever solace they could find. For Lovelace, this last refuge from the political realities was no longer available.

Love, honor, and truth

The best known of Lovelace’s lyrics are those that celebrate love, honor, and truth, especially “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” and “To Althea, from Prison,” the latter set by John Wilson for John Playford’s Select Airs and Dialogues (1659). It is one of a number of royalist dungeon pieces that may be indebted to Vincent Voiture’s Dans la prison, although prison philosophy was certainly something of a Cavalier convention. For all of Lovelace’s asseverations that “iron bars do not a prison make,” a sense of lost conviction lingers about the poem like Althea’s whispering to her loved one “at the grates.” While the poet extravagantly claims his right to lie “tangled” in his mistress’s hair and “fettered to her eye,” a feeling of suffocating doom weighs heavily on the poem. In...

(The entire section is 1627 words.)