Richard Lovelace

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Understanding the opening stanza and tone of Richard Lovelace's "To Althea, from Prison"

Summary:

The opening stanza of Richard Lovelace's "To Althea, from Prison" sets a tone of defiant freedom despite physical confinement. The speaker expresses that his spirit and thoughts are free to roam and be with Althea, suggesting that true liberty is a state of mind, not bound by physical constraints.

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How would you explain the opening stanza of "To Althea, from Prison" by Richard Lovelace?

The opening stanza of Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Althea, from Prison” can be explicated as follows:

WHEN love with unconfined wings

When Cupid, the classical god of love (who is usually depicted as a young boy who has wings and is therefore capable of flying freely)

Hovers within my Gates;

hovers within the gates of the prison in which I am presently confined

And my divine Althea brings

and when Cupid brings the virtuous and beautiful woman whom I love, whose name is Althea (and whose name, in Greek, means “healer”)

To whisper at the Grates;

so that she can whisper to me through the iron grates of my prison cell

When I lye tangled in her haire

and when I lie tangled in her hair (either literally or perhaps only metaphorically, since it is hard to imagine at first how he, while imprisoned, can lie tangled in her hair literally [although see comments below])

And fettered to her eye;

and when I am imprisoned by looking at her beautiful eye(s),

The Gods that wanton in the Aire,

Then (I have to declare) that (even) the gods that are free to fly through the air

Know no such liberty.

Do not possess the kind of freedom that I possess.

The line in this poem that causes the most interpretive difficult is the line declaring that the speaker lies “tangled” in the hair of Althea.  The verb “lye” implies that he is not merely touching her hair but that somehow he is touching it as they lie together. Prisoners in the seventeenth century, especially those who were prominent or wealthy, could often have visitors to their cells, and so perhaps this fact explains how Althea might actually have lain with the speaker in his cell. Or perhaps the speaker uses the word “tangled” in a merely metaphorical sense: as he gazes upon her hair, he feels tangled in it.  The verb “lye,” however, seems very literal.

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How might one paraphrase and explain the third stanza of the poem "To Althea, from Prison," by Richard Lovelace?

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

When (like committed linnets) I

   With shriller throat shall sing

The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,

   And glories of my King;   [20]

When I shall voice aloud how good

   He is, how Great should be,

Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,

   Know no such Liberty.

This stanza might be paraphrased and analyzed in the following ways: when I (like encaged songbirds) sing even more loudly and forcefully than a bird could sing and when I use my singing to celebrate the goodness, compassion, and grandness of my king (King Charles I); and when I proclaim how virtuous he is and how great in power he should be (that is, if he were properly appreciated by his subjects, some of whom are rebelling against him); then, when all these events occur, not even the freely flowing winds that stir up waves on the sea will know no greater liberty than I know.

Paradoxically, the speaker in this stanza engages in the very kind of singing he imagines himself doing in the future. This stanza, then, calls a kind of subtle attention to the fact that he is already fulfilling the promises this stanza makes.

Notice the progression of the poem so far: from an emphasis on love of women (in stanza one), to an emphasis on fellowship with (probably male) friends (in stanza two); to an emphasis on love and loyalty to the king (in the present stanza).  The poem is organized in such a way that it becomes progressively more serious and broader in its implications with each new stanza. In a sense, the poem also moves up the so-called “Great Chain of Being” (which explained the hierarchy of the universe).  It is not surprising, then, that heavenly angels are mentioned in the fourth and final stanza.

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How would you explain the opening stanza of "To Althea, from Prison" by Richard Lovelace?

 Stanza II runs as follows:

When flowing Cups run swiftly round
    With no allaying Thames,
Our carelesse heads with Roses bound,
    Our hearts with Loyall Flames ;
When thirsty griefe in Wine we steepe,
    When Healths and draughts go free,
Fishes that tipple in the Deepe,
    Know no such Libertie.

This lyric poem the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace wrote in 1642 while held for seven weeks in London's Gate Prison for opposing the anti-royal actions of the Puritan Parliament. Its essential theme rests on this paradox: Even though a captive, the poet is a free man - free to dream, free to think and write, free to love. Thus, he is free to embrace his beloved Althea, though confined to a prison cell. Thus he is free to swear fealty to his embattled king, though unable to physically defend him. The astute reader finds a similar paradox in stanza II:

'Though fish have a whole ocean from which to drink, they are not as free as the poet who, through his gamboling imagination, can drink draughts and raise toasts of loyalty to the king from bottomless cups of wine undiluted by the water of the Thames'.

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

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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How might one paraphrase and explain the meaning of the second stanza of Richard Lovelace's poem "To Althea, from Prison"?

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

When flowing Cups run swiftly round

   With no allaying Thames,        [10]

Our careless heads with Roses bound,

   Our hearts with Loyal Flames;

When thirsty grief in Wine we steep,

   When Healths and draughts go free,

Fishes that tipple in the Deep  [15]

   Know no such Liberty.

These lines might be paraphrased and analyzed as follows: when cups of wine, freely filled and refilled, are passed around and consumed and when that wine is not diluted either in flavor or in alcoholic content by having water from the River Thames (the main river in London) mixed with it; and when we wear crowns of roses on our heads (heads which are free from cares); and when we feel in our hearts the fire of loyalty (probably loyalty to King Charles I, who was in conflict with Parliament at the time this poem was written, although “loyal” here may also imply loyalty to one’s friends); and when we drown our sorrows by drinking wine; and when we are free to drink abundantly to the health of others and propose toasts to their health as we do so drink; when all these events occur, then the very fish that drink from the sea are not as free as we feel, even if we are imprisoned.  

This stanza seems to imply either (1) drinking with fellow prisoners; or (2) drinking with friends who visit the speaker in prison; or (3) both. Such visits were not uncommon.

The first stanza of the poem had emphasized the consolations that feminine beauty could provide to the imprisoned speaker. This stanza implies that consolations that can be provided by (probably) male friends and fellowship and by shared drinking. In both this stanza and the first stanza, the speaker implies that although he may be imprisoned physically, in his mind and soul and spirit he is essentially free. In other words, he responds to his predicament with a kind of Christian stoicism.  The Christian flavor of his response will become clearer and clearer as the poem proceeds.

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What is the tone of Richard Lovelace's poem "To Althea, From Prison"?

Overall, the poem is a declaration of independence that some might interpret as being almost defiant. The speaker is imprisoned, away from the woman he loves because of his loyalty to the King whose enemies have captured him. However, he does not find this a situation to be mourned or regretted.

Instead, he affirms the freedom of his mind and spirit. Because his thoughts can not be taken from him, he is able to remember and imagine the time and pleasures he shared with his lover. Despite the consequences of his loyalty to the King, he remains steadfast in loudly proclaiming "how good He is."

The speaker exults in the freedom of his spirit. Prison is not a punishment; the victory of mind over physical location is celebrated in this poem.

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