Saturday, 10 October 2009

Richard Lovelace: 'To Lucasta, Going to the Wars'

Richard Lovelace (1618-c.1658), described by a contemporary as 'the most amiable and beautiful person that ever eye beheld', fell from privilege into desperate poverty during his short life.

The reason was the English Civil War. Lovelace remained loyal to the King, having served him as 'gentleman wayter extraordinary' from the age of 13. He was imprisoned briefly in 1642 after presenting a Royalist manifesto to Parliament, and imprisoned again five years later for his part in Royalist disturbances. While in prison, he prepared the Lucasta poems for publication. But he was broken and ruined by his experiences, and spent his final years as 'the object of charity', lodging in 'obscure and dirty places'. His exact date of death is unknown, but he was reported by John Aubrey to have died in a cellar in Long Acre.

To Lucasta, Going to the Wars

Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkind,
  That from the Nunnery
Of thy chaste breast, and quiet mind,
  To War and Arms I flee.

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.

Yet this inconstancy is such
  As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
  Loved I not Honour more.

'Lucasta' is derived from the Latin meaning 'pure light', and therefore she shares with women addressed by Lovelace elsewhere in his work --- Amarantha ('Immortal') and Althea ('Truth') --- an idealised abstraction. The reference to the 'Nunnery', and to a single 'breast' (not 'breasts') ensures that this relationship is taken out of the sexual domain. ('Get thee to a nunnery', Hamlet tells Ophelia.) It is the 'new Mistress' who excites the passions, with the prospect offered by that consummatory rhyme 'chase /embrace'. The poet is untrue in pursuit of a greater desire: the desire for those Virgilian 'Arms'.

The third stanza starts as an attempt at reconciliation, only to end by uneasily justifying the sense of competition and the greater appeal of Mars over Venus. 'Honour' is a concept which applies as much to the battlefield as to love. It is the poet's love of Honour which allows him to love Lucasta 'so much', with the implication that if he were to stay with her it would show a lesser love. By avowing his commitment to Honour before all else, he attempts to show that he is being true to Lucasta in the act of abandoning her.

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  1. 'Get thee to a nunnery', Hamlet tells Ophelia.

    However, nunnery was Elizabethan slang for a brothel, which raises questions about Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia. Indeed, for a good Anglican- I presume he was an Anglican- Lovelace's apparently approving use of the word is unusual for the time.

  2. Good point about 'Nunnery'; I also agree that its use here is 'apparently approving'. Although Lovelace was Anglican, as a Royalist he may well have been sympathetic to Catholicism. The Queen was a Catholic.

  3. ah yes, the soldier, the lover, the old story being played out this very moment in homes across this country as the chalks roll out every two days and soldiers explain why they do what they do as they kiss their loved ones goodbye.
    I've met more than a few who "flee" to "arms and War," addicted to the adrenaline, the brotherhood, and the weird eroticism of war, and more than a few who would choose the brothers over their families if they absolutely had to make a choice.

  4. Professor Kendall,
    Unfortunately we don't know a lot about the life or death of Lovelace. Is there any indication as to when he wrote "To Lucasta, On Going To The Wars"?
    Also, I vaguely recall that there was a countering poem entitled "Lucasta's Reply" or something similar. If you are familiar with that poem, would you please post it?
    Thank you.

    (Retired Colonel)

  5. 1649 is the date of publication, but I'm afraid that I don't know when he wrote the poem. If there's a passing Renaissance scholar out there, perhaps he or she will kindly leave a comment. I don't know, either, about a reply to the poem. There are several Lucasta poems by Lovelace. The other famous one, often found in anthologies, is 'To Lucasta, Going Beyond the Seas'.

  6. Writing replies to poems is a long custom; however,the only reply by Lucasta I know of is A.D.Hope's twentieth century one in "A Book of Answers". It's still in copyright, so I don't think I can quote it.

  7. I am doing this poem at school. The explanations certainly helped. Much appreciated.

  8. Brilliant analysis. This really aided my students in understanding the poem.

  9. Tell me not SWEET (Naive People/Person) I am unkind,

    That from the NUNNERY ("The simple life you experienced opposed to ME/I")

    Of thy CHASTE BREAST,(pure/simple by design)

    and QUIET MIND, (knowledge you know not of me/I, therefore you give no thought and to judge is easier)
    To War and Arms I flee. (To fight for my right and honour I will
    stand strong & true)

    True, a new Mistress now I chase, (to pursue his fate)
    The first Foe in the Field; (anticipated roadblocks lurking)
    And with a stronger Faith embrace (Surviving life’s war)
    A Sword, a Horse, a Shield. (Whichever Knowledge/Power Life shall provide me)

    Yet this inconstancy is such
    As you too shall adore; (Yes If you do not stand for what you believe you will fall for anything - (Tis honour you shall adorn)
    I could not love thee, Dear, so much, (thee is existence in his life)
    Loved I not Honour more (Embraced "Honoured Honour" above all)


    He was child of 9 years of age when his father was stolen from him in the name of honour as his father died in battle. Obviously his father being a soldier would be a constant threat to a young child and probably he lived in fear of losing his him. As I would think as in any era when the father is gone the child’s lifestyle is threatened.

    Considering he was a wayter for the King at the age of 13, his childhood was robbed from him. Possibly when his father was alive; Richard may not have been indoctrinated and too he had tasted the experience of freedom of thought, speech and the personal power and control that came with it.

    He was imprisoned briefly at the age of 24.

    Obviously at the age of 29 while in prison, he prepared the Lucasta poems and I would think he had time to reflect on his challenging life.

    I believe he was feeling within; a prisoner of people, a prisoner of walls but not of his knowledge and talent of putting his words as he pleased.

    As the article suggests Richard was “Broken and ruined and spent his final years as 'the object of charity', ‘LOVE NOT WAR’ maybe that is what he honoured.

    As per the article above “He was imprisoned briefly in 1642 after presenting a Royalist manifesto to Parliament, and imprisoned again five years later for his part in Royalist disturbances”

    As the meaning of the word Manifesto suggests below it can be an individual’s life stance.

    This is my take on this poem that read today for the first time in my life; but too I write a bit of poetry and I feel that mine is deep and I tend to use words that one can take the story as they will. Like a painting that is in the eyes of the beholder as to what they see in the artist creation.



    ***Manifesto promotes a new idea with prescriptive notions for carrying out changes the author believes should be made. It often is political or artistic in nature, but may present an individual's life stance.*** = Hence possibly his use of words were more deep and referenced his inner artistic thoughts.***