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Richard Lovelace's "To Althea from Prison"

Updated on December 3, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Richard Lovelace

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "To Althea from Prison"

The speaker in Richard Lovelace's "To Althea, from Prison" dramatizes the nature of inner freedom. As the title suggests, the setting from which the speaker muses and composes his drama is a prison cell, where he is being held as a political prisoner.

In 1642, the poet, Richard Lovelace, one of the Cavalier Poets, was imprisoned at London's Gate House. During his seven weeks of incarceration, he wrote the poem of freedom, "To Althea, from Prison."

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 Gods 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.

Reading of Lovelace's "To Althea from Prison"

Commentary

First Stanza: Love Gives a Sense of Freedom

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 Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

The speaker begins by musing on how his love for "[his] divine Althea" gives him a sense of freedom. He celebrates the power of the mind to allow him to imagine the presence of his beloved Althea, as he "lie[s] tangled in her hair / And fettered to her eye."

The key words tangled and fettered imply a type of bondage, yet while captured in this kind of bondage, the speaker realizes that his heart and soul are capable of experiencing a deep sense of liberty, so thorough that even the birds flying without restraint in the air cannot comprehend such profound freedom.

Second Stanza: The Freedom in the Mind

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.

The speaker's mental prowess also allows him to recall the times that he and his like-minded fellows spent in raising their cups in celebration of their king. He can drink without end mentally without any physical damage.

While they drink in this unlimited fashion and their "thirsty grief in wine [ ] steep," the speaker realizes that even as fish in the sea have all the liquid they could want, he is still even freer to imbibe more. (A similar idea is celebrated in Dickinson's "I taste a liquor never brewed." #214 in Johnson.)

Third Stanza: Mind and Memory Expand Freedom

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.

The purpose of political imprisonment is to stop the voice of political opposition, but this speaker declares that he can continue to sing the praises of his king, despite incarceration.

The speaker insists that like committed linnets he will "with shriller throat sing / The sweetness, mercy, majesty, / And glories of [his] king."

This speaker declares that his king is good and should be considered great. And then again, he announces that his freedom remains absolute and greater than the "Enlarged winds, that curl the flood."

This mental capacity along with memory renders his freedom to praise his king even stronger than one of nature's most powerful forces.

Fourth Stanza: Mind and Soul Live Freedom of the Angels

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.

Finally, the speaker proclaims a useful and important philosophy, one that "Minds innocent and quiet take / That for an hermitage."

Innocent people wrongly incarcerated turn to their minds and realize, "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage." This line has become quite famous for the truth it expresses.

The speaker then concludes that the freedom of the mind and soul gives him the same freedom as the angels who soar above. Both mankind and the angels can enjoy such liberty.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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