Home  »  Volume VII: English CAVALIER AND PURITAN  »  § 11. Richard Lovelace

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

I. Cavalier Lyrists

§ 11. Richard Lovelace

Our knowledge of Richard Lovelace’s career is mainly derived from the account which Anthony à Wood has given of him in his Athenae Oxonienses. He belonged to an influential Kentish family, and was the eldest son of Sir William Lovelace, of Woolwich, where he was born in 1618. He was educated at the Charterhouse and at Gloucester hall, Oxford. While at the university, he wrote his lost comedy, The Scholar, and, after only two years’ residence, he was admitted to the degree of master of arts at the solicitation of a court lady upon whom his “most amiable and beautiful person, innate modesty, virtue and courtly deportment” had made a deep impression. The following years were spent in London, or at his Kentish residence, or as a soldier in the Scottish campaigns of 1639 and 1640. About 1640, he wrote his tragedy The Soldier, which seems never to have been acted or published, and which has shared the same fate as his comedy The Scholar. In 1642, he was chosen by the cavalier party in Kent to present to the House of Commons the so-called Kentish petition, which asked for “a restoration of the bishops, liturgy and common prayer”; the petition was burnt by the common hangman and, for some seven weeks, Lovelace was a prisoner in the Gatehouse, Westminster. His imprisonment inspired the famous song, To Althea from Prison. A promise made to the Long Parliament not to leave London without the permission of the Speaker prevented him from taking a very active part in the civil war, but he contributed horses and arms to the royalist cause, and, after the surrender of Oxford, in 1646, he offered his sword to the French king, Louis XIV, and was wounded at Dunkirk. On his return to England, in 1648, he was imprisoned in Petre house, Aldersgate, where he prepared for the press his volume of poems, entitled Lucasta: Epodes, Odes, Sonnets, Songs, etc., which was published in 1649. Set at liberty after the execution of Charles, he seems to have remained in London, and Anthony à Wood gives us a gloomy picture of his last years:

  • Having by that time consumed all his estate, he grew very melancholy, … became very poor in body and purse, was the object of charity, went in ragged clothes (whereas when he was in his glory he wore cloth of gold and silver) and mostly lodged in obscure and dirty places, more befitting the worst of beggars and poorest of servants.
  • From the same account, we gather that he died amid miserable surroundings, in Gunpowder alley, London, in 1658. In the following year, his brother, Dudley Posthumus Lovelace, published his remaining verses under the title, Lucasta: Posthume Poems. The Lucasta who, after the manner of the heroines of Elizabethan sonnet-sequences, lends her name to his two volumes of poetry, is said to have been Lucy Sacheverell.

    Lovelace’s standing among English poets is peculiar. He has left us two or three songs which are included in almost every anthology of English verse, and which deserve enduring fame; in addition to these, he wrote a considerable number of lyric, descriptive and complimentary poems, of which it may, without rancour, be said that it would have been better if they had remained in manuscript and perished with his two plays. For, in them, he exhibits most, if not all, of the faults of taste found in Elizabethan sonneteers, together with the fantastic extravagances of the seventeenth century school of lyrists. His love-lyrics to Lucasta are as frigidly rhetorical as the worst poems in Cowley’s Mistress, while his Pastoral: to Amarantha abounds in the otiose conceits of what Ruskin has taught us to call “the pathetic fallacy.” To what excesses a labouring fancy, unrestrained by good taste, may run is well illustrated by such poems as Ellinda’s Glove or Lucasta’s Muff, by the verses entitled A Loose Saraband, in which he declares that love has made a whipping-top of his bleeding heart, or by the opening stanza of the song, Lucasta Weeping:

  • Lucasta wept, and still the bright
  • Enamoured god of day,
  • With his soft handkerchief of light,
  • Kissed the wet pearls away.
  • Judged by the bulk of his poems, Lovelace has more in common with Habington than with the typical cavalier lyrists, Suckling and Carew; and, although his addresses entitled The Grasshopper and The Snail faintly recall the Anacreontic Ode to the Cicada, he cannot well be called a neo-classic or a follower of Jonson.

    When compared with his other poems, Lovelace’s two songs To Althea from Prison and Going to the Wars seem nothing less than miracles of art. In them, there is no trace of the pedantry or prolixity, the frigid conceit and the tortured phrase, of his other poems; in their simplicity, their chivalrous feeling and their nobility of thought, they touch perfection. And scarcely inferior to them, though not so well known, is his song, To Lucasta going beyond the Seas, the third stanza of which deserves to rank with the most memorable things in English lyric poetry:

  • Though seas and land betwixt us both,
  • Our faith and troth,
  • Like separated souls,
  • All time and space controls:
  • Above the highest sphere we meet,
  • Unseen, unknown, and greet as angels greet.
  • Had Lovelace always written like this, the comparison which the seventeenth century biographer, William Winstanley, drew between him and Sir Philip Sidney might win our glad approval.