A reading of a classic poem
‘To Lucasta, Going to the Wars’ is one of the most famous poems by the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace (1617-57). In the poem, Lovelace defends his decision to take up his sword and head off to battle, arguing with his beloved that it is honour which calls him away from her. Here is the poem, and some notes towards an analysis of it.
To Lucasta, Going to the Wars
Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field;
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield.
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
Lov’d I not Honour more.
In summary, Lovelace responds to his lover’s complaint that he is leaving her to go off to fight. Don’t tell me I’m mean for leaving you like this, he says, because I go to war out of honour, and because I am an honourable man. If I were not honourable, I wouldn’t be a fit lover for you – so the very thing that takes me away from you, namely my sense of duty and honour, is the thing that makes it possible for me to be a good lover for you in the first place.
‘Lucasta’, a fictional name derived from the Latin Lux casta – ‘pure light’ – may have been based on Lucy Sacheverell, a woman Lovelace was romantically involved with, but who later ended up marrying someone else (supposedly, and rather sadly, because she received an incorrect report that Lovelace had died). The sobriquet Lovelace gives to his beloved, ‘Lucasta’, along with the imagery and language he employs in the poem, describe Lucasta as pure and devoted: her ‘chaste breast’ is described as a ‘nunnery’, connoting ideas of purity but also religious devotion. Her ‘quiet mind’ suggests placidity and calm: her mind is untroubled by violent or tempestuous thoughts. But Lovelace has to leave this refuge of innocence and calm to go and fight in the Civil War.
The ‘new mistress’ Lovelace must now ‘chase’ – that very word picking up on, and thinning down, the word ‘chaste’ from the previous stanza – is, of course, war and battle. Religion, too, resurfaces in this middle stanza, with Lovelace confessing that he embraces war with ‘a stronger faith’ than the one he showed to Lucasta (suggesting he’s not been entirely faithful to her).
In the final stanza he tries to reason with her objections, arguing that she wouldn’t think so highly of him if he did not obey the call of duty which, it so happens on this occasion, is also a call to arms. As with the bracketed ‘(Sweet)’ in the first stanza, Lovelace here uses the epithet ‘(Dear)’ to address Lucasta, which imparts the sense of a man trying to placate a woman, in a soothing, shushing manner.
If war is Lovelace’s ‘new mistress’, that implies that Lucasta is his former one. Yet she is portrayed in courtly and chivalrous terms – her ‘chaste breast’ is a ‘nunnery’ – even though, given the intimacy (and erotic undertones) of ‘breast’, Lovelace has clearly done more than admire her from afar. In this respect, ‘To Lucasta’ is a sort of updating of the courtly love poem of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance: an updating because the ‘mistress’, whilst ‘chaste’ in one sense, is more than just an object of pure devotion for the poet. (As well as the intimacy of ‘breast’, we also have the word ‘arms’ forming a gentle bridge between Lucasta the mistress and the ‘new mistress’ of war, since Lovelace is going from the soothing arms of his lover to the welcoming ‘arms’ or weapons of battle.)
‘To Lucasta, Going to the Wars’ is one of the most popular Cavalier lyrics, probably because it is short and its meaning reasonably straightforward. It’s nevertheless worth poring over its language and images for the light – the ‘pure light’ – they shed on the poetry produced during one of the most turbulent times in English history.
Image: Portrait of Richard Lovelace by William Dobson (c. 1645), via Wikimedia Commons.