A Poem by Richard Lovelace (1618-1657)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Revised in 2011...©
Richard Lovelace (1618-1657) was a dashing, handsome, well-educated gentleman who, as a soldier and poet, strongly defended the king during The Bishops' Wars in Scotland (1639-1640) and the English Civil Wars (1642-1651). He held inherited estates in Kent and freely used his personal resources to support the king's causes. He became famous as one of the cavalier poets. (See Reason for Imprisonment for further information on these poets.)
"To Althea, From Prison" is a lyric poem on the paradoxical theme of freedom during imprisonment. It was written in 1642 and published in 1649 in a poetry collection called To Lucasta.
Richard Lovelace (1618-1657) sets "To Althea, From Prison" within the walls of Gate House, a prison in Westminster, London. While confined there for seven weeks in 1642, he spent part of his time writing "To Althea" and another poem.
During a power struggle in England
between King Charles I and Parliament, Lovelace
sided with the king. Charles—King of England,
Ireland, and Scotland from 1625 to 1649—believed
strongly that his authority was God-given and
pre-eminent. This viewpoint disconcerted
Parliament. Charles further unsettled Parliament
when he married a French
Princess Henrietta Maria, and when he championed
the authority of the Church of England, insisting
on preservation of its elaborate rituals in
opposition to the wishes of a large bloc of
Puritans in Parliament.
After Parliament took issue with his foreign policy and his administration of the national purse, Charles dissolved Parliament (1629) and governed without it until 1640, when he convened a new Parliament. Sentiment against him remained strong. However, he had his defenders—notably a group of writers known as Cavalier poets. They were refined, cultured, fashionably dressed gentlemen—the very definition of cavalier—who included Lovelace, as well as Thomas Carew, Robert Herrick, and Sir John Suckling. When Parliament Puritans known as Roundheads (because of their short haircuts compared with the luxurious locks of the cavaliers) ousted Anglican bishops from Parliament, Lovelace presented a petition calling for their restoration. In response, Parliament imprisoned him in Gate House.
Speaker: He is a prisoner who
declares that those who confined him cannot stop
him from exercising his ability to think and
The eight lines in each stanza of the poem alter between iambic tetrameter (with eight syllables and four iambic feet) and iambic trimeter (with six syllables and three iambic feet). An iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is as follows: ababacdcd. The following graphic presentation illustrates the rhyme scheme and meter in the first stanza.
. ......1...... . .. . ..2 . . .......3. . . .. . ..4Internal Rhyme
Lovelace also uses internal rhyme in the poem, as the following lines indicate:
When I lie tangled in her hair (line 5)
No One Can Imprison the Human Mind
A human being remains free to think and dream—as well as to hold fast to controversial opinions—even though his body has limited mobility. Obviously, this theme can apply not only to a prisoner in a cell but also to anyone limited by circumstances and conditions, such as blindness, paralysis, geographical isolation, economic deprivation, and so on.
To emphasize and support his
theme, Lovelace uses repetition. Notice, for
example, that seven clauses begin with when. Notice
also that the first three stanzas each end
with Know no such liberty and that the
final stanza ends with Enjoy such
When Love with unconfinèd wings (line 1)Anaphora
Our careless heads with roses boundMetaphor
When Love with unconfinèd wingsParadox
The entire poem rests on this paradox: the imprisoned speaker is a free man.Study Questions and Writing Topics