Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1627
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.
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 comparison, the joyous, almost Elizabethan “Gratiana, dancing and singing,” creates a world of exuberance, excitement, and courtly fascination, defining an atmosphere that exists, like Izaak Walton’s trout-filled streams, in a world forever vanished. The theme of mutability sparkles through the verse like the golden tresses of Aramantha, that flower of another poem, which when loosened and shaken out will “scatter day.”
In truth, for Lovelace it is sorrow that scatters his days, along with the realization that “joys so ripe, so little keep.” Though the popular lyric “The Scrutiny” flaunted that brand of cynicism and masculine arrogance learned from John Donne through Thomas Carew and Sir John Suckling, the richer imaginative strain is the note that sounds touching true worth irretrievably lost. The general slightness of Lovelace’s lyrics is, in one sense, a measure of what has vanished; and the brief attention span that shows itself in many of the poems, such as “Gratiana, dancing and singing,” which disintegrates after the brilliance of the opening four stanzas, may be as much the result of distracted or shattered sensibilities as it is of limited poetic skills. The lyrics frequently end in fragments of broken vision or imaginative exhaustion. There are debts, as well, to the courtier poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose verse, like Lovelace’s own, was often crabbed and tortured but could rise to take the measure of a tawdry world.
The Influence of Giambattista Marino
Perhaps because he was an amateur poet and a connoisseur of art, Lovelace saw very clearly the value of restoring the ruins of time. Like many of his contemporaries, particularly Stanley, an indefatigable translator, Lovelace went to continental as well as classical models for his verse, including that fantastic lyricist of the previous generation, Giambattista Marino. It may be assumed that the Petrarchan themes employed by Marino and his followers fascinated the royalist imagination, both by their sensuousness and by the brilliance of their metaphorical transformations. If poetry could change things, such linguistic strategies as the Marinisti presented in search of the marvelous might be enlisted by the Cavaliers in support of the royalist vision. After all, in the king they were accustomed to see poetically and politically the divinely linked agent of the miraculous. Beyond this, translation became for the poets of the time a means both to enrich their own meager gifts and to reinforce the realm of humane letters that was, they believed, the special preserve of the royalist writers.
From Marino, Lovelace borrowed the ideas and images for a number of his better poems. In “Elinda’s Glove,” working from Marino’s II Guanto (c. 1600’s) “Gli occhi di foco e’l sen di ghiaccio armata,” Lovelace developed the images of sexual passion and feminine cruelty into an emblem that combined its sexuality with a social statement, transforming the intensely private into the mode of social convention and sophisticated tolerance, with tinges of mockery. Lovelace’s “Song: To Aramantha, that she would dishevel her hair” develops one of Marino’s favorite themes, while the complimentary verses of “Gratiana, singing and dancing” paraphrase the sonnet of Giovanni Leone Sempronio, “La bella ballerina,” and Lovelace’s lyric “The Fair Beggar” employs a motif developed in the poem “Bellissima Mendica” by the Marinist Claudio Achillini.
Although much of his poetry written to celebrate friends and fellow artists was mere compliment, Lovelace often struck a note of sincerity that swept aside cant and allied human dignity with the longer life of art. On occasion these poems may owe something to models drawn from Marino’s La Galeria (1619), but mere ingenuity gives way to the demands of authentic history and personal tragedy. In this regard, his poems written to Lely deserve a place in any appraisal of his accomplishments as a poet. In “Painture,” he displays a fairly comprehensive understanding of painting and its particular fate in England, where the indifference of the average Englishman to anything but family portraits had troubled painters from Hans Holbein on. With Lely, Lovelace shares a sense of the importance of painting and seeks, by that bond, to establish an alliance against philistinism: “Now, my best Lely, let’s walk hand in hand,/ And smile at this un-understanding land,” where men adore merely their “own dull counterfeits.”
Like his “Fly Caught in a Cobweb,” as a poet and courtier Lovelace may seem to be a “small type of great ones, that do hum/ Within this whole world’s narrow room.” His vision as a minor poet, however, may display more clearly the age that produced him than do the more majestic tones of genius that rise above the humble chorus of voices from the land. In his “Advice to my best brother, Colonel Francis Lovelace,” he counsels that “to rear an edifice by art so high/ That envy should not reach it,” one must inevitably “build low.” The lessons of humanity lie close to the surface of his poetry, more visible than the treasures of his wit. In the analysis of his poetry, that shallow part has satisfied most inquirers. Many have failed even to look that closely.
In his own day, Lovelace’s poetry achieved little serious recognition. A few poems were known and recognized, but he did not enjoy a reputation such as Suckling did, for example. By the eighteenth century, he seems to have been almost forgotten. Had it not been for Bishop Thomas Percy, who reprinted his two most famous lyrics in his Relics of Ancient English Poetry (1765), he might easily have completely faded from sight. From his friend and benefactor Cotton, he received a suitable estimate in an elegy written for Lucasta: Posthume Poems:
In fortune humble, constant in mischance,Expert in both, and both served to advanceThy name by various trials of thy spiritAnd give the testimony of thy merit;Valiant to envy of the bravest menAnd learned to an undisputed pen.