A reading of a classic poem
Richard Lovelace (1617-57) was a leading Cavalier poet, and an Englishman who supported, and fought for, King Charles I during the Civil War. ‘To Althea, from Prison’ is one of his most famous poems; it certainly contains his most famous lines. In this post we’re going to offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘To Althea, from Prison’ focusing on the poem’s context, language, and meaning.
To Althea, from Prison
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,
And fettered to her eye,
The Birds that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.
When flowing Cups run swiftly round
With no allaying Thames,
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
Know no such Liberty.
When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.
(‘Birds’ in the first stanza, by the way, is sometimes corrected to ‘Gods’ (as on the Poetry Foundation website), but ‘Birds’ makes perfect sense given this stanza’s talk of ‘wings’.)
In summary, ‘To Althea, from Prison’ is about freedom and imprisonment in the broadest sense, with Lovelace exploring the different forms of ‘liberty’ we enjoy, and ‘confinement’ we face. Lovelace is actually writing from prison – he was incarcerated in 1641 for presenting a pro-Royalist petition in the House of Commons, and perhaps wrote ‘To Althea’ the following year – but his poem waxes lyrical about ‘imprisonments’ of all kinds.
The first stanza recalls Althea – who was probably, like ‘Lucasta’ from his other poems, a reference to the poet’s lover Lucy Sacheverell – coming to visit Lovelace at the prison gates (secretly, as the reference to her whispering at the grates suggests). The birds in the sky aren’t as free as our poet feels when he lies in his lover’s arms.
The second stanza brings the drink out, with Lovelace describing the ‘flowing Cups’ of a drinking party, where the wine isn’t watered down (‘no allaying Thames’). This Bacchanalian revelry outdoes the pleasure and freedom afforded to the fish, who can drink deep of the sea.
The third stanza essentially praises King Charles I, who would be executed in 1649 and who was fighting in the English Civil War when Lovelace penned ‘To Althea, from Prison’. Lovelace, being a Cavalier poet, was a supporter of Charles, hence this third stanza: singing his king’s praises affords Lovelace greater liberty than the winds which move the waters of the sea.
The fourth and final stanza begins with two lines which have taken on the status of proverb (in so far as many people will be familiar with the words but have no knowledge of Lovelace): a ‘prison’ is not bricks and mortar, not the building which contains you, since after all, many people, such as hermits, choose to live in cells by themselves. To them, their ‘prisons’ are their liberty. No: if the poet is free to love as he wishes, and feels free in his soul (here ‘soul’ is meant to refer to one’s conscience first and foremost, we suspect), then he is as free as the angels in heaven.
Note the tropes of imprisonment and freedom which Richard Lovelace uses in this poem: being close to his lover is described in terms that call to mind confinement (‘tangled’, ‘fettered’), but because he chooses to be with her, such bonds are not really forms of restraint at all. The choice of ‘Hermitage’ in the final stanza evokes a religious calling, just as the image of ‘Love with unconfinèd wings’ has Love hovering somewhere between Cupid and an angel – with angels, of course, making an appearance at the close of the poem. And images of wings and flying pervade the poem: Love’s ‘unconfinèd wings’ in that first line, of course, but also the ‘Birds that wanton in the Air’, the simile which likens Lovelace and his fellow Cavaliers to ‘committed linnets’, and those Angels in the final stanza. These bring personal love (between Lovelace and Althea), love of one’s king, and religious observance all together through these various winged images.
‘To Althea, from Prison’ is well-known thanks to the opening lines of its final stanza, but the whole poem is a fine piece of Cavalier verse that deserves close analysis and discussion. It also shines a light on a key moment in English history, which would end with the king’s crown – and his life – both being forfeit.
Image: Portrait of Richard Lovelace by William Dobson (c. 1645), via Wikimedia Commons.