Lovelace (1649) "To Althea, from Prison" by the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace is considered one of the most beautiful and balanced lyric poems in English. The famous line from its final stanza "Stone Walls do not a Prison make" supports a theme not original to Lovelace, that physical confinement may be transcended by imagination. Lovelace experienced imprisonment for his Royalist sympathies on more than one occasion, so he knew of what he wrote. In this carefully constructed poem he celebrates the fact that the human will has the capacity to triumph over adversity. Considered the finest of the "prison poems," it is valuable for its simple expression of a complex truth.
Each of Lovelace's four stanzas contains two quatrains and a rhyme scheme of ababcdcd, with repetition of Liberty as the concluding word. The first three stanzas open with the word When, and in each seventh line, the speaker compares himself to another being, over whom he triumphs in his feelings of liberation. only in the concluding stanza does he note the being who shares his feelings of victory, an angel. He uses imagery that supports his theme of spiritual freedom.
In the first stanza he describes "Love with unconfined wings," which "hovers within my Gates," or his metaphorical prison. He fantasizes that Althea arrives at the prison grates to "whisper" her love, and he notes his only "fettered," or chained, state is when he lies "tangled in her hair." Even "Gods that wanton in the Aire / Know no such Liberty." The second stanza employs imagery of flowing wine, by reference to Cups that flow so freely they may be compared to the Thames itself. He describes a time of celebration when are "our careless heads with Roses bound, / Our hearts with Loyal Flames." Again the prisoner imagines drowning his "thirsty grief" in wine during a time when all celebrants toast one another's health. He concludes that stanza by reflecting on the notion of the flowing river and the drunkenness that accompanies times of joy. Even "Fishes that tipple in the Deep, / Know no such Liberty."
The third stanza features a singing bird, the "linnet," to which the speaker compares himself as he sings "The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty, / And glories of my King." Alliteration helps emphasize the positive aspects of his ruler, making clear the speaker feels his incarceration is a worthy sacrifice. Not only will he sing, he "shall voice aloud" the king's goodness and his potential for greatness with the effect of "Enlarged Winds that curl the Flood," which "Know no such Liberty." The emotions of loyalty and devotion to his cause grant the speaker more freedom than the strongest winds, which obviously roam at will.
The imprisoned speaker makes his summary pronouncement in the final stanza, "Stone Walls do not a Prison make, / Nor Iron bars a cage," stressing that it is not physical confinement that defeats a man, but rather a lack of mental freedom. Instead of suffering in prison, "Minds innocent and quiet take / That for an Hermitage," meaning his prison becomes a refuge, allowing him to expand his thoughts. Lovelace concludes his poem with four lines of shining simplicity that summarize his truth:
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free;
Angels alone that sore above,
By referencing angels and heaven, Lovelace elevates human love and imagination to a divine level, reminding readers that God created men superior to the angels and in his image. Rarely has a poet so concisely and skillfully undercut the power of his oppressors. Lovelace demonstrates through his art his topic, that of the power of the imaginative word.
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