To Althea, From Prison

by Richard Lovelace

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)
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.

Written in 1642 by Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace, “To Althea” poses the contradictory question of physical imprisonment and mental freedom. Using an “abab” rhyme scheme, Lovelace gives his poem a musical quality. Although Lovelace is imprisoned, he expresses the liberty he feels in his love for Althea. He compares his liberated mental state with the physical freedom of “Gods that wanton in the Air” and “fishes that tipple in the Deep.” In the third stanza, Lovelace introduces his political beliefs and support for King Charles, bold statements to espouse during the 17th century. He declares that he will “sing the sweetness, Mercy, Majesty, And glories of my King.” This poem becomes not only a romantic declaration, but also a political statement declaring love and loyalty to the king. It is Lovelace’s unwavering loyalty to the monarch that steeps him in controversy. In the third stanza, Lovelace even states that “Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood/Know no such Liberty.” Even while he is locked in prison, Lovelace believes that he is more free than powerful forces of nature. At the end of the first three stanzas, he declares that none of these “know such liberty” as he does. His repetition of this line emphasizes his belief in his freedom.

In the final stanza, Lovelace dismisses physical imprisonment as utterly meaningless: “Stone Walls do not a Prison make/Nor Iron bars a Cage.” Unlike Lovelace, weak minds would quietly accept these physical barriers as “Hermitage.” Lovelace, however, refuses to yield to this physical confinement: “If I have freedom in my Love/And in my soul am free.” At the end of the last stanza, Lovelace finally likens his feelings of liberty to angels. They “alone that soar above/Enjoy such liberty.” In this final line Lovelace invokes religious undertones, claiming that only angels can possibly have the same level of liberty. Both Lovelace and the angels supersede the physical in their freedom, one in holiness and the other in love.

Richard Lovelace was one of the major Cavalier poets in England during the 1600s. He pledged unyielding support to King Charles I and was heavily persecuted and imprisoned for this devotion. Lovelace also published “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars,” another hallmark of Cavalier poetry during the 17th century.

The biographical information was found on The Poetry Foundation’s Website,

maddieMaddie Thorpe has twice served as a Shenandoah intern, once as Poem of the Week Editor and once as Social Networking Editor.  She is from Southern California and will take a degree in English from Washington and Lee in spring of 2014.