Richard Lovelace

b. 1618 d. 1657


Stone Walls do not a Prison make, / Nor Iron bars a Cage

To Althea, from Prison

Richard Lovelace, read by Maurice Riordan

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About Richard Lovelace

Richard Lovelace was born in Woolwich in 1616. His father, Sir William Lovelace, fought in the Low Countries, was knighted by King James I, and  was killed at the Seige of Grolle in 1628. Richard was educated at Charterhouse and Gloucester Hall Oxford; he was made MA in only his second year at the request of one of the queen’s ladies who had been impressed by his stylish courtliness during a royal visit. During his first year at Oxford, at the age of sixteen, he wrote a comedy, The Scholars, first acted at the college, and later in London, to great acclaim.

Wealthy, handsome and elegant, Lovelace was a key figure at the court of King Charles I; he took part in the king’s unsuccessful expeditions to suppress the Scots in 1639. He presented a Royalist petition to Parliament and was imprisoned in Westminster Gatehouse for six weeks in 1642. While in prison, he wrote 'To Althea. From Prison'. 

In 'To Althea', the imprisoned Lovelace imagines a visit from his fiancée Lucy Sacheverell, only to immure him in deeper imprisonment: entangled by her hair and fettered to her eye. The idea of love brings liberty to an imprisoned lover, but love itself is a prison. Even so ‘the birds that wanton in the air / Know no such liberty’. The poem moves on to celebrate the King and kingly virtues at a time when it was dangerous to do so: finally, in the famous lines ‘Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage’, 'To Althea' becomes a celebration of true freedom, the freedom of thought and conscience.

Following his release, Lovelace was wounded at the battle of Dunkirk in 1647, and in 1648 imprisoned by Parliament once again, this time for supporting Royalist disturbances in Kent. Released in 1649, he published Lucasta. Once again, the heroine of the poem was Lucy Sacherevell, whom Lovelace liked to call Lux Casta (pure light). Unfortunately, upon hearing (mistakenly) that Lovelace had died of his wounds at Dunkirk, she married someone else.

'The Grasshopper' is a beautiful poem about friendship, and the contentment to be found in the placid company of someone you have known for many years. The poem draws on Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant, which taught the prudent use of good times to prepare for bad, but draws a different moral: they are happiest who 'asking nothing, nothing need'.

After losing Lucy, and financially ruined by his support of the Royalist cause, Lovelace, who was described as ‘the most amiable and beautiful person that ever eye beheld’ disappeared into obscurity. He died in 1658, according to his contemporary biographer John Aubrey, in a cellar in Longacre.

Selected bibliography

The Poems of Richard Lovelace (Forgotten Books, 2012)

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The Lucasta Poems (Kindle edition)

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Links

Recordings

1To Althea, From Prison

2To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars

3The Grasshopper: To my Noble Friend Mr. Charles Cotton

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