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December 18, 2017

Richard Lovelace, "Stone Walls"

On this day in 1642, courtier, soldier, and gentleman-poet, Richard Lovelace presented the Kentish Petition to Parliament -- a Royalist document calling for the restoration of the rights of King Charles I -- and was promptly imprisoned for it. His confinement produced "To Althea, From Prison"; this has become one of the most anthologized of 17th century poems, known especially for the poster-famous lines in the last stanza:
    When Love with unconfined wings
    Hovers within my gates,
    And my divine Althea brings
    To whisper at the grates;
    When I lie tangled in her hair,
    And fetter'd 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....

    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.
Lovelace was a dandy and a drinker -- he belonged to the "Sons of Ben," a group of young poets who idolized and drank with Ben Jonson -- but the critics do not rank him highly as a poet. "Very few poets in the seventeenth century who wrote as much as Lovelace displayed such incompetence," writes one; a good illustration of "To what excesses a labouring fancy, unrestrained by good taste, may run," writes another. This last comment is from the Cambridge History of English and American Literature; it goes on to state that, in comparison, "To Althea" and one other poem, "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars," seem "nothing less than miracles of art." Below, the second miracle:
    Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind,
    That from the nunnery
    Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
    To war and arms I fly.

    True, a new mistress now I chase,
    The first foe in the field;
    And with a stronger faith embrace
    A sword, a horse, a shield.

    Yet this inconstancy is such
    As you too shall adore;
    I could not love thee (Dear) so much,
    Lov'd I not Honour more.
Lovelace was later imprisoned again for his Royalist leanings, and a 17th century biographer tells us that by his death in 1658 he had fallen from grace and squandered his estate: "He became very poor in body and purse, was the object of charity, went in ragged clothes (whereas when he was in his glory he wore cloth of gold and silver) and mostly lodged in obscure and dirty places, more befitting the worst of beggars and poorest of servants.... He died in a very mean lodging in Gunpowder Alley, near Shoe Lane."

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