By Vikas Datta
An intrepid swordsman, inveterate royalist, handsome, and a ladies’ man, this 17th-century English nobleman was a Cavalier, with a capital C, in all its colourful, historical meaning, instead of the current usage as an unflattering adjective. He also happened to be a delightful poet, largely forgotten now despite penning one of the most quoted lines of English poetry — and the finest expositions of human spirit’s resilience.
“Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage…” wrote Richard Lovelace (pronounced as “loveless”) (1617-57 or 1618-58) in the final stanza of his “To Althea, from Prison” (1642). It was written from a prison — though only on a seven-week sentence — where he had been sent by the Parliament for approaching it with an unwelcome petition.
But it strikes a greater chord when we read the full stanza which goes on: “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” or as it begins: “When love with unconfined 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…”
Scholars dispute the identity of Althea, with some terming her a product of Lovelace’s imagination, though others cite evidence to claim she was Lucy Sacheverell, to whom Lovelace was once betrothed.
However, in her case, he was guilty of being a cavalier in its modern meaning too. Despite dedicating both “To Althea…” and his other famous poem “To Lucasta, Going to the Warres (Wars)” — also written in jail, as well as many others, to her, he showed a lack of proper concern towards her to the extent she gave up on him.
As Nicholas Parsons says in “The Book of Literary Lists”, Lovelace is unfortunate to have his fame rest on these two poems, and was equally unfortunate in his personal life. “… for it was reported that he was killed fighting in France; consequently his betrothed, Lucy Sacheverell (Lucasta), married another man. Perhaps, also, she was a bit fed up with Lovelace, who put military duty before passions”.
“To Lucasta…” bears this out. The three-stanza poem begins: “Tell me not, sweet, I am unkind,/That from the nunnery/Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind/To war and arms I fly”, and goes on to say: “True, a new mistress now I chase,/The first foe in the field;/And with a stronger faith embrace,/A sword, a horse, a shield”.
And it ends: “Yet this inconstancy is such/As thou too shalt adore;/I could not love thee, dear, so much,/Loved I not honour more.”
Beautifully put, but scarcely the way to a woman’s heart.
But what sort of a man was Lovelace?
His contemporary, antiquary and writer John Aubrey (1626-1697), best known for his “Brief Lives”, a collection of short biographical pieces, writes, in his gossipy way, that “he was a most beautifull gentleman”.
“In the civill warres, colonel of horse in Sir Fr. Dodington’s brigade. Good sword-man; horseman; admirable extempore orator pro harangue; great memorie; great historian and romanceer; great falkoner and for horsemanship; exceeding curious and searching long since, in natural things,” wrote Aubrey.
Lovelace was also “one of the handsomst men of England… He was an extraordinary handsome man, but prowd…”
An Oxford contemporary, Anthony Wood also described him as “the most amiable and beautiful person that eye ever beheld”.
Apart from matters of his descent, his estate and the fact that he once owed his tailor an unpaid bill for some time, other details about Lovelace are sketchy. We nearly have no idea how he spent the last decade of his life, though one account says that having spent his fortune in the King’s service, he died in poverty.
But we can get a fair idea of his love for Lucy/Althea/Lucasta — in his own way, dedicating poems to her at any opportunity. There was “To Lucasta, Going Beyond the Seas”: “If to be absent were to be/Away from thee;/Or that when I am gone,/You or I were alone;/Then my Lucasta might I crave/Pity from blustring winde, or swallowing wave…”
Then, there is “Ode. To Lucasta. The Rose”, ending: “But early as she dresses,/Why fly you her bright Tresses?/Ah! I have found I feare;/Because her Cheekes are neere.”
There are also “Dialogue. Lucasta, Alexis”, “Lucasta Weeping. Song”, “Lucasta’s Fan”, “Lucasta, taking the waters at Tunbridge. Ode”, “To Lucasta. Ode Lyrick”, “The Lady A.L. My Asylum In A Great Extremity”, “Lucasta paying her Obsequies to the Chast memory of my dearest Cosin Mrs. Bowes Barne”, “Lucasta’s World. Epode” and even “When I by thy fair shape did swear”, among others.
We could also cite “The Scrutiny” with “Then, if when I have loved my round,/Thou prov’st the pleasant she,/With spoils of meaner beauties crowned/I laden will return to thee,/Ev’n sated with variety.”
Even after all this, he could not get his heart’s desire — that is the tragedy many creative people face.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)