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Richard Lovelace's "To Althea, from Prison"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "To Althea, from Prison"

Richard Lovelace's seventeenth century classic, "To Althea, from Prison," is elucidating the qualities of the mind that render victims of incarceration capable of experiencing freedom. According to spiritual leaders, such as Paramahansa Yogananda, true freedom is a soul quality, and regardless of physical status, the soul always reigns supreme.

Richard Lovelace’s classic poem, "To Althea, from Prison," has graced the world with the famous quotation, "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage." These lines have served to assuage the trials and tribulations of all those have been incarcerated, especially those who were innocent of the crimes of which they were accused. But those lines also are often employed by those who feel that ordinary life for the ordinary citizen can become a prison of difficulties, pain, and suffering. If one does not employ a useful musing to render suchpain otherwise, the mind will begin to feel that is is caged. Life under the sway of maya prescribes that freedom is not free; yet, all too often it seems that the prison of pain and sorrow is. The speaker in Richard Lovelace’s widely anthologized, classic poem is dramatizing the nature of inner freedom.

As the title states, the setting from which the speaker muses and composes his little drama is a prison cell, where he is being held as a political prisoner. In 1642, the poet, Richard Lovelace, one of the Cavalier Poets, was, in fact, imprisoned in London at Westminster Gatehouse from April 30 to June 21, 1642. During his seven weeks of incarceration, he composed this poem of freedom, "To Althea from Prison." This classic poem is widely anthologized and studied in university English classes. Despite its mystical nature, it remains a piece of curiosity to academics as well as an uplifting, inspirational testament to the spiritual minded.

To Althea, from Prison

When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered 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.

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
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.

Reading of "To Althea, from Prison"

Commentary

The speaker in Richard Lovelace’s in "To Althea, from Prison" is examining and elucidating the power of the mind to render victims of incarceration capable of experiencing a sense of freedom. The speaker also celebrates his patriotic love for his king, to whom he remains loyal because he deems his king to be great.

First Stanza: Love Gives a Sense of Freedom

When Love with unconfinèd wings
Hovers within my Gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the Grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

The speaker begins by musing on how his love for "[his] divine Althea" gives him a sense of liberty. He celebrates the power of the mind that allows him to envision the presence of his belovèd Althea, as he muses on lying with her in a loving repose, "tangled in her hair" and her eyes staring into his own eyes. The key words "tangled" and "fettered" imply a type of bondage, yet while captured in this kind of bondage, the speaker realizes that his heart and soul are capable of experiencing a deep sense of freedom, so thorough that even the birds flying —"The gods that wanton in the Air"—without restraint through the sky cannot comprehend such profound freedom.

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The speaker’s sense of liberty is well beyond his ability to explain its profound nature; thus, he must resort to image, metaphor, and other figurative language to convey a sense of the ineffable. In order to communicate states of being that remain literally beyond words, both poetry and holy writ employ the use of literary devices such as metaphor, image, personification, and hyperbole.

Second Stanza: The Freedom in the Mind

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.

The speaker's mental prowess also allows him to recall the times that he and his like-minded fellows spent in raising their cups in celebration of their king. He can drink without end mentally without any physical damage. While they drink in this unlimited fashion and their "thirsty grief in wine [ ] steep," the speaker realizes that even as fish in the sea have all the liquid they could want, he is still even freer to imbibe more.

A similar idea is celebrated in Emily Dickinson's widely anthologized poem, "I taste a liquor never brewed," in which the speaker reports her important discovery about the nature of the soul. She reveals that upon experiencing soul-awareness a kind of intoxication results in an experience that transcends its earthly bonds, winging its way through another sky—a sky even wider and more fully arrayed with brilliance than the one observed with the human eye.

Third Stanza: Mind and Memory Expand Freedom

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.

The purpose of political imprisonment is to stop the voice of political opposition, but this speaker declares that he can continue to sing the praises of his king, despite incarceration. The speaker insists that "like committed linnets" he will continue a full throated song which sings the positive qualities that he insists represent his king.

This speaker is declaiming that his king is a positive force for good and should, therefore, be considered great. And then again, he announces that his freedom remains absolute and greater than the many winds in storms that cause the ocean to whip up and flood the land. Thus, this mental capacity along with his memory render his freedom to praise his king even stronger than one of nature's most powerful forces.

Fourth Stanza: Mind and Soul Live Freedom of the Angels

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.

Finally, the speaker proclaims a useful and important philosophy. Among the tenets of that philosophical stance is included the fact that the innocent are capable of resting in the knowledge of both their innocence and the correctness of their position. They can take such knowledge as their home, where despite outward circumstances, they remain free because they are wedded to the idea of liberty and truth.

Innocent people wrongly incarcerated (and wrongly accused) turn to their own minds and realize, "Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage." These lines have become world famous for the truth they express. The speaker then concludes that the freedom of the mind and soul gives him the same freedom as the angels that soar above. Both humankind and the angels can enjoy such liberty, not through mere imagination but through the mystical soul experience bestowed on each human being as a child of the mystical Divine Reality.

Sources

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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