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To Althea, From Prison
A Poem by Richard Lovelace (1618-1657)
A Study Guide
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The Author
Type of Work
Setting
Author's Imprisonment
Characters
Meter and End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Theme
Text, Summaries, Notes
Use of Repetition
Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
Revised in 2011...©

The Author

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.)

Type of Work

"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.

Setting

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.

Reason for Imprisonment

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 Catholic, 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. 

Characters

Speaker: He is a prisoner who declares that those who confined him cannot stop him from exercising his ability to think and dream.
Althea: The woman to whom Lovelace addresses the poem. Her identity is uncertain; she may even have been a product of Lovelace's imagination. However, evidence suggests she was a woman named Lucy Sacheverell.
The King: Charles I.

Meter and End Rhyme

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. .  .  .. .  ..4
When LOVE..|..with UN..|..con FIN..|..èd WINGS.(iambic tetrameter) 
. ...1.......... . ..2.......  .....3
Hov ERS..|..with IN..|..my GATES..(iambic trimeter)
......1......   ...2......... ....3................4
And MY..|..div INE..|..Al THE..|..a BRINGS..(iambic tetrameter) 
......1......   .  ..2..........  ....3
To WHIS..|..per AT..|..the GRATES (iambic trimeter)
......1......   . ..2.. ...........3..............4
When I..|..lie TANG..|..led IN..|..her HAIR..(iambic tetrameter)
......1.......    .. ..2. ....... ....3
And FET..|..tered TO..|..her EYE,..(iambic trimeter)
.......1....       .... ..2.........  ....3.............4
The BIRDS..|..that WAN..|..ton IN..|..the AIR.(iambic tetrameter)
......1......   ... ..;..2...... ....3
Know NO..|..such LIB..|..er TY.(iambic trimeter)
Internal Rhyme

Lovelace also uses internal rhyme in the poem, as the following lines indicate:

When I lie tangled in her hair (line 5)
And fetter'd to her eye (line 6)
Know no such liberty (line 8)
When flowing cups run swiftly round (line 9)
When thirsty grief in wine we steep (line 13)
When I shall voice aloud how good (line 24)

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Theme

No One Can Imprison the Human Mind

A human being remains free to think and dreamas well as to hold fast to controversial opinionseven 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 Althea, From Prison
By Richard Lovelace


Text of the Poem Summaries and Notes


When Love with unconfinèd wings Although in prison, the poet is freer than the birds that fly about at
  Hovers within my gates, will. Why? Because his mind is free. He can imagine his love, 
And my divine Althea brings Althea, so close to him that he becomes tangled in her hair and 
  To whisper at the grates their gazes meet when they are only inches apart.
When I lie tangled in her hair è: The grave accent over the e indicates that the letter receives
  And fetter'd to her eye,  full pronunciation: UN kon FY ned 
The birds that wanton in the air  within my gates: inside the prison; grates: bars, grill
  Know no such liberty.  wanton: fly freely and aimlessly


When flowing cups run swiftly round  Fishes have a whole ocean from which to drink. But they are less 
  With no allaying Thames, free to drink than I am here in prison. My imagination makes 
Our careless heads with roses bound,  bottomless cups flow with winewithout water from the River 
  Our hearts with loyal flames; Thames to dilute itas I and my friends wear rosy wreaths and 
When thirsty grief in wine we steep, toast the king. We may mourn the loss of our rights, but still there
  When healths and draughts go free are toasts (healths) and draughts (the taking in of wine).
Fishes that tipple in the deep loyal flames: support for the king
  Know no such liberty.


When, like committed linnets, I Though I am in prison, I am free to sing the praises of my king.
  With shriller throat shall sing No wind, however strong, can make as great a sound as I can
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,  when I sing the glories of my monarch. 
  And glories of my King; committed linnets: caged birds that include canaries and 
When I shall voice aloud how good sparrows
  He is, how great should be,
Enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,
  Know no such liberty.


Stone walls do not a prison make, The walls and iron bars that surround me cannot imprison me,
  Nor iron bars a cage; for my mind remains free. Because I am innocent of wrongdoing,
Minds innocent and quiet take I regard prison as a hermitage, a retreat where I can concentrate
  That for an hermitage; on what matters to memy love for Althea and the principles by 
If I have freedom in my love which I live. Only angels have as much freedom as I do.
  And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
  Enjoy such liberty.
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Repetition

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 liberty. 

Repetition also helps to form the structure of the poem in that each stanza has a single sentence with several clauses.


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Figures of Speech

Alliteration

When Love with unconfinèd wings (line 1)
When I lie tangled in her hair (line 5)
Know no such liberty (line 8)
When thirsty grief in wine we steep (line 13)
Anaphora
Our careless heads with roses bound 
Our hearts with loyal flames (lines 11-12)

When thirsty grief in wine we steep,
When healths and draughts go free—(lines 13-14)

When I shall voice aloud how good / He is, how great should be (line 21-22)

Metaphor
When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my gates (lines 1-2)

Our hearts with loyal flames (line 13)

Paradox
The entire poem rests on this paradox: the imprisoned speaker is a free man.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a short poem on the theme of freedom.
  • Lovelace says it is impossible for his captors to imprison his mind. Is such freedom of the mind true for all human beings? Or are some people prisoners of an idea? Explain your answer.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem and a ballad?
  • Write an essay focusing on the struggle between Parliament Puritans and the cavalier poets who defended the king?
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