Richard Lovelace

English Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace (ca. 1618-ca. 1657) is famous for a handful of often-anthologized lyrics.

Richard Lovelace began as Fortune's darling but ended as her victim. Born probably in the Netherlands, he belonged to a prosperous Kentish family noted for professional soldiers: Sir William, his father, died fighting for the Dutch; one of his brothers became governor of New York. After Richard left Charterhouse School, his comedy, The Scholar, written at the age of 16, was performed at his college, Gloucester Hall, Oxford, and "with applause" in London. The influence of one of the Queen's ladies is said to have accounted for his receiving an honorary master of arts degree after 2 years in the university. He was "the most amiable and beautiful person that ever eye beheld, a person also of innate modesty, virtue, and courtly deportment, which made hi…. much admired and adored by the female sex." He did not neglect them.

After a few months at Cambridge, Lovelace rejoined the somewhat decadent but ceremonious and cultured court of Charles I in 1638; as a schoolboy, he had gained entry to it as an honorary servitor to the King. The glitter of being young, brilliant, and charming, a dabbler in polite behavior and learning, a promising poet, and a noteworthy ornament in royal pageantry soon faded. The Scots rebelled, and Lovelace participated in two inglorious campaigns against them. But he did not abandon the pen for the sword. Though his tragedy, The Soldier, has not survived, his exquisitely disciplined lyric "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars" won him lasting fame, especially its concluding resolution of the love-honor conflict: "I could not love thee, Dear, so much/Loved I not Honor more."

With the restoration of peace and his coming of age, Lovelace became a Kentish country gentleman. But his defiant royalist sympathies and his presenting Parliament with a pro-Episcopal petition, when it had abolished Episcopacy and had already ordered the petition burned, led to his being jailed for 7 weeks. It was probably then that he achieved the classical perfection of "To Althea from Prison" and its much-quoted "Stone walls do not a prison make,/ Nor iron bars a cage."

After the Puritan Revolution exploded in 1642, Lovelace sold most of his lands, spent several years in Holland, and in 1646 was wounded while fighting for the French against the Spaniards. In 1646 parliamentary troops arrested him in Kent as a dangerous royalist. During a half year in prison he prepared his best poems for publication, and in 1646 they appeared as Lucasta: this pseudonymous mistress has not been identified. A decade later his brother's edition of Lucasta, Posthume Poems brought the total of his published original poems to just over a hundred; they were accompanied by some verse translations. Nothing is known of his whereabouts in the years preceding his death about 1657; but there is no sound basis for the notion that he was reduced to penury. During this period he published two complimentary poems, celebrated a friend's wedding in verse, and seems to have revised other compositions.

Lovelace's literary reputation rests on the lyrics mentioned above and a few others, notably "The Grasshopper" and "To Lucasta from Prison." Lines of extraordinary felicity redeem even his second-rate work. He had potentialities for greatness but preferred the role of an amateur versifier characterized by sprezzatura—graceful nonchalance. The real Lovelace seems to have been a player of roles unwilling to sustain responsibilities; even as a soldier he lacked the "industrious valor" of his brothers. He is better known by the myth of him which his better poems created—that of an ideal Cavalier in amour and war, a second Sir Philip Sidney.

Further Reading on Richard Lovelace

The standard edition, The Poems of Richard Lovelace, edited by Cyril Hackett Wilkinson (1925), provides the most authoritative life and commentary. Robert Guy Howarth, Minor Poets of the Seventeenth Century: Suckling, Lovelace, Carew and Herbert (1931; rev. ed. 1953), is readily available and provides the poems in a modernized text but without commentary. Cyril Hughes Hartmann, The Cavalier Spirit and Its Influence on the Life and Work of Richard Lovelace (1925), is partly superseded by Wilkinson and by Manfred Weidhorn, Richard Lovelace (1970), which comprehensively and readably surveys the life, the works, and all the publications about them.

Additional Biography Sources

Hartmann, Cyril Hughes, The Cavalier spirit, and its influence on the life and work of Richard Lovelace (1618-1658), Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1974; Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976; Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.