To Althea, from Prison

Written in prison

Richard LovelaceAlthough many of the Metaphysical poets lived through the Civil War period (1642-1650), there are remarkably few poems written about it. Richard Lovelace's is one of these. He was a Royalist, a courtier at times, and fought for King Charles I in Scotland 1639-1640. He was imprisoned by Parliament for a month in 1642 for bringing in a petition to restore the Anglican bishops excluded from Parliament. He decided to leave the country on his release, returning in 1647. He was again imprisoned, for six months this time, and dispossessed of his family estates. He died in poverty in 1658. This poem was written during his first brief imprisonment.

Some famous literature has been written from prison. John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress is one of the more famous examples in English literature, though Sir Thomas Malory was also in prison for some of the period in which his Morte d'Arthur was produced. Lovelace's poem could be considered one of the little poetic gems that have come out of the experience.

Freedom and Captivity

The poem is structured round the paradoxes thrown up by freedom and captivity. For most prison writers, true freedom is internal, not external. This is true for religious writers, too. Donne wrote, ‘I/Except you' enthrall mee, never shall be free' (‘Batter my heart'). Lovelace proposes three such examples of this paradox before deriving his conclusion in the final stanza.

Freedom through love

The first paradox is that of human love. He can lie ‘tangl'd in her hair/ And fetterd to her eye', yet know emotional freedom unknown to the birds (some versions of the poem have ‘gods'), even though the birds are usually a symbol of freedom as they soar in the air. The imagery of the first stanza already suggests a prison visit, with the ‘Gates/ Grates' rhyme. If he does not mean a prison literally, then he presumably is talking about the human body as a figurative prison, a somewhat platonic symbolism.

Other freedoms

The second stanza suggests the freedom of alcohol. The alcohol stirs up his patriotism. Maybe they make loyal pledges and toasts (‘Healths'). Again, this freedom is compared to the fish, who move in a liquid medium but do not know this inner freedom of spirit. The third expression of this paradox is to do with freedom of speech. Even when ‘like committed Linnets' (a caged songbird), he can still ‘voyce aloud' his political allegiance. In this he is freer than the wind, that can make as much noise as it likes anywhere, since again it is an inner freedom.

A confident conclusion

This leads him to a very confident – and now well-known - conclusion:

Stone Walls doe not a Prison make,
Nor I'ron bars a Cage.

Hermitage, photo by ednl, available through Creative CommonsThe prison becomes ‘an hermitage'. Hermits were voluntary religious solitaries. This time the comparison is not in terms of ‘I have more liberty than ... ' which is what we expect by now. The comparison is of the ‘as much as ... ' sort: here, the angels. They are in heaven (‘sore above'), so there cannot be greater liberty than that.

Investigating To Althea, from Prison
  • Read through Lovelace's To Althea, from Prison
  • Note the song-like quality of the poem
    • Would it make a successful song, do you think?
    • What does he mean: ‘Our hearts with Loyall Flames'?
  • Where does Althea come into it?
  • What is actually the captivity of the first stanza, and the freedom in it?

(see Themes and significant ideas > Personal freedom.)

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