‘To Althea, from Prison’ by Richard Lovelace is a four stanza poem which is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Each of these octaves follows a structured and consistent rhyming pattern of ababcdcd which alternates as the poet saw fit throughout of four verses.
Lovelace wrote this piece in 1642 while imprisoned in Gatehouse Prison adjoining Westminster Abbey. He had that year presented a petition to Parliament in protest of the Bishops Exclusion Bill. The bill prevented those heavily involved with the Churches of England from enacting any control over matters concerning the church.
Lovelace saw this as an injustice and from prison wrote this letter in the form of a poem to a woman named, “Althea” whose true identity has never been confirmed.
Summary of To Althea, from Prison
The poem begins with the speaker stating that while imprisoned in his cell his love comes to him and improves his situation. He imagines that his lover, Althea, visits him and takes his confinement away. His imaginings free him from the gates and grates which surround him.
In the next section, he recalls moments of happiness drinking with others. These times brought him, and his friends, a freedom which was greater than that known by fish in the sea. They drink to the health of their king, a fact which contributed to the poet’s imprisonment in the first place.
In the last sections, he describes his ability to sing more shrilly than a “linnet.” This bird’s song is not as sweet or loud as his is. His words will glorify the king and provide him with a freedom greater than that known by the winds which turn up a flood. The final lines return to the speaker’s lover and he states that their love makes him freer than the angels which “soar” in the sky.
Analysis of 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.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker, who is the poet himself, begins by describing his moments of happiness within the prison. Although he is imprisoned, there are moments that are lighter than others. These come on the back of his thoughts of “Althea,” a woman he is deeply in love with.
He sees her hover “within” the gates of his cell. She is ephemeral and ghost-like, bringing to him a “whisper” of conversation through the “Grates.” It is his memory of her joyous image which brings him the greatest happiness during his confinement.
The speaker’s images of his lover go beyond the simple conversation. There are moments in which he is able to “lie tangled in her hair.” The two stare into one another’s eyes and feel completely free. He states that in these moments no god which is “wanton” or free, to roam about “in the Air” knows the “Liberty” that he does.
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.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to reminisce on a number of other moments that brought him boundless joy, and still manage to now that he is away from his lover. He speaks on the times they were able to drink from “flowing Cups” and celebrate in one another’s company. The drink is pure, undiluted by the “Thames.” It felt as if their heads were surrounded with roses and their hearts filled with “Loyal Flames.” The drink brings them closer together.
Following the pattern constructed in the first stanza, Lovelace speaks of “liberty” in the next four lines. This time he describes how these moments in which their “thirty grief” is indulged by the wine are like fish swimming “in the Deep.” The speaker and those he drinks with are loyal to the current king of England. They are unhappy with the way their country is being run but continue to give him their support. They know freedom through their drinking which is unmatched by any other, even that known by the fish of the sea.
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 speaker begins this stanza with another “When” statement. This time he is comparing his own situation to that of a “committed linnet.” A “linnet” is a type of bird that is in this metaphor confined, just as the speaker is. He declares that he can sing more shrilly, or louder, than the birds can. The speaker sings with purpose as well. His words will be tied directly to the “glories of [his] King.” He speaks of his “Mercy” and “Majesty” in these lines.
The song he sings, praising the king, (something which has just recently helped to land him in prison) allows him a freedom which is greater than that of the “Englargéd Winds” which cause a “Flood.”
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.
In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker begins with a phrase that has come to be widely known and quoted. He is emphasizing his opinion of prison and how he does not have to consider himself confined when he is within its walls. If the speaker does not accept his own imprisonment, he will not be stuck in a “Cage.” He can live in jail without feeling trapped.
There are others who have this ability as well. They are those with “Minds innocent.” Through this phrase, he is saying that the innocently jailed will be able to think their way into a better situation than they are currently in. They need not feel trapped within the walls of the prison.
In the final four lines, the speaker returns to the refrain which marks the end of each stanza. This time he describes how the “love” he sustains with “Althea” allows him a “freedom” in his soul which is greater than that known by “Angels…that soar above.”