Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Richard Lovelace (16181658)
[Richard Lovelace was born at Woolwich in 1618; he died in Gunpowder Alley, near Shoe Lane, London, in April 1658. His Lucasta was published in 1649 and his Posthume Poems in 1659. He was the author of The Scholar, a comedy, written in 1634, and of The Soldier, a tragedy, written in 1640, but these dramas are lost.]
IT may safely be said that of all the Royalist lyrists Lovelace has been overestimated the most, as Carew has been the most neglected. The reason of this is not hard to find. Carew was a poet of great art and study, whose pieces reach a high but comparatively uniform standard, while Lovelace was an improvisatore who wrote two of the best songs in the language by accident, and whose other work is of much inferior quality. A more slovenly poet than Lovelace it would be difficult to find; his verses have reached us in the condition of unrevised proofs sent out by a careless compositor; but it is plain that not to the printer only is due the lax and irregular form of the poems. It did not always occur to Lovelace to find a rhyme, or to persist in a measure, and his ear seems to have been singularly defective. To these technical faults he added a radical tastelessness of fancy, and an excess of the tendency of all his contemporaries to dwell on the surroundings of a subject rather than on the subject itself. His verses on Ellindas Glove must have been remarkable even in an age of concetti. The poet commences by calling the glove a snowy farm with five tenements; he has visited there to pay his daily rents to the white mistress of the farm, who has gone into the meadows to gather flowers and hearts. He then changes his image, and calls the glove an ermine cabinet, whose alabaster lady will soon come home, since any other tenant would eject himself, by finding the rooms too narrow to contain him. The poet, therefore, leaves his rent, five kisses, at the door, observing, with another change of figure, that though the lute is too high for him, yet, like a servant, he is allowed to fiddle with the case. Such trivialities as these were brought into fashion by the wayward genius of Donne, and continued in vogue long enough to betray the youth of Dryden. In Lovelace we find the fashion in its most insipid extravagance.
Yet there are high qualities in the verses of Lovelace, though he rarely allows us to see them unalloyed. His language has an heroic ring about it; he employs fine epithets and gallant phrases, two at least of which have secured the popular ear, and become part of our common speech. Going to the Wars, his best poem, contains no line or part of a line that could by any possibility be improved;1 To Althea is less perfect, but belongs to a higher order of poetry. The first and fourth stanzas of this exquisite lyric would do honour to the most illustrious name, and form one of the treasures of our literature. It is surprising that a poet so obscure could for once be so crystalline, and that the weaver of gossamer conceits could contrive to be so tenderly sincere. The romantic circumstances under which Lovelace wrote these lines have given to them a popular charm. The imprisonment under which he was suffering was brought upon him in the unselfish performance of duty. He had been chosen by the whole body of the county of Kent to deliver the Kentish petition to the House of Commons; the result was, doubtless, what he expected, the petition being burned by the Common Hangman, and he himself, on the 30th of April, 1642, thrown into the Gatehouse Prison.
The romantic career of Lovelace must be taken into consideration when we blame the defects of his poems. He was born to wealth and station, he was generously educated, and he became a favourite with the royal family while he was but a youth. During the brief period of his prosperity he lived the life of a spoiled child. He was the handsomest man of his generation, he was addressed under the name of Adonis, and he spent his time in reading Greek poetry, in playing and singing, and in feats of arms. His manners were, we are told incomparably graceful. Yet, born into that iron age, his career closed in the most tragic way. It being reported that he was killed, his betrothed married another man; and after wasting all his substance in the recklessness of despair, this darling of the Graces died in extreme want, and in a cellar. A life of only forty years spent in such vicissitudes gave little opportunity for that retirement from the world which scholarship and art require. His hasty verses were thrown off at a heat, and the genius in them is often rather a spark than a steady flame. In the curious verses entitled The Grasshopper, of which we shall quote all that is intelligible, we seem to possess an instance of his hurried and jejune mode of composition. He commences by addressing the grasshopper, in lines of unusual dignity and pregnancy, but he presently forgets this, and, without any sign of transition, recommences Thou best of men and friends, this time plainly addressing the friend, Charles Cotton, to whom the ode was sent. It is difficult to believe that he ever himself read over his lines, for it could not fail to occur to him, had he done so, that the same object could not be spoken to as Poor verdant fool and as Thou best of men and friends. But when we consider with what nonchalance the lyrical poets of the seventeenth century composed and then neglected their effusions, the surprising thing is not that these have reached us in so inaccurate and fragmentary a form, but that they have reached us at all.