Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Elizabethan Verse
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William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Elizabethan Verse.  1907.
 
To Althea, from Prison
By Richard Lovelace (1618–1658)
 
WHEN 1 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 2        5
  And fetter’d to her eye, 3
The birds that wanton in the air 4
  Know no such liberty.
 
When flowing cups run swiftly round
  With no allaying Thames,        10
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        15
  Know no such liberty.
 
When, like committed linnets, I 5
  With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
  And glories of my King;        20
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,        25
  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,        30
Angels alone, that soar above,
  Enjoy such liberty.
 
Note 1. Dr. John Wilson, Professor of Music in the University of Oxford, 1660, set the first stanza of this famous song to music, in Cheerfull Ayres or Ballads: First composed for one single voice, and since set for three voices, 1569. Hazlitt, in his ed. of Lucasta, 1864, says: “I have sometimes thought that, when Lovelace composed this production, he had in his recollection some of the sentiments of Wither’s Shepherds Hunting, 1615. See, more particularly, the sonnet (at p. 248 of Mr. Gutch’s Bristol Edition) commencing: ‘I that erst while the world’s sweet air did draw.’” [back]
Note 2. When I lie tangled in her hair: Compare Peele’s:
  Now comes my lover tripping like a roe
And brings my longings tangled in her hair.
(David and Bethsade, 1599, Scene i.)    
Note 3. And fettered to her eye: Compare Middleton:
                  … Fond man,
That can forget his excellence and honour,
His serious meditations, being the end
Of his creation, to learn well to die,
And live a prisoner to a woman’s eye.”
(More Dissemblers besides Women, 1657.)    
Note 4. The birds, that wanton in the air: the gods, is the original reading. On this point Hazlitt says: “The present word is substituted in accordance with a MS. copy of the song printed by the late Dr. Bliss, in his edition of Wood’s Athenæ. If Dr. Bliss had been aware of the extraordinary corruptions under which the text of Lucasta laboured, he would have had less hesitation in adopting birds as the true reading.” (Lucasta, p. 118.) [back]
Note 5. When, like committed linnets I: In Percy’s Reliques, ii., 247, this is changed to linnet-like confined, which Ellis (Specimens of Early English Poetry, ed. 1801, iii., 252) considers the “more intelligible.” Hazlitt’s comment on such matters in general, and on this in particular, while displaying somewhat of that rancorous spirit which he has put into other critical opinions with less influence of conviction, seems here quite final. “It is not, however,” he says, “either what Lovelace wrote, or what (it may be presumed) he intended to write, and nothing, it would seem, can be clearer than the passage as it stands, committed signifying, in fact, nothing more than confined. It is fortunate for the lovers of early English literature that Bp. Percy had comparatively little to do with it. Emendation of a text is well enough; but the wholesale and arbitrary slaughter of it is quite another matter.” Prof. Saintsbury seems to carry out Hazlitt’s championing of Lovelace in this respect when he says: “It is not quite true that Lovelace left nothing worth reading but the two immortal songs, To Lucasta on going to the Wars and To Althea from Prison; and it is only fair to say that the corrupt condition of his text is evidently due, at least in part, to incompetent printing and the absence of revision.” (History of Elizabethan Literature, p. 376.) [back]
 
 
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