To Althea, from Prison

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Richard Lovelace by William Dobson.

"To Althea, from Prison" is a poem written by Richard Lovelace in 1642. The poem is one of Lovelace's best-known works, and its final stanza's first line "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage" is often quoted. Lovelace wrote the poem while imprisoned in Gatehouse Prison adjoining Westminster Abbey to encourage the Clergy Act 1640 to be annulled.[1]


When love with unconfined wings
Hovers within my gates,
And my divine Althea brings
To whisper at the grates;
When I lie tangled in her hair
And fettered to her eye,
The birds that wanton in the air
Know no such liberty.

When flowing cups run swiftly round,
With no allaying Thames,
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
Know no such liberty.

When like committed linnets I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, mercy, majesty,
And glories of my King:
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how great should be,
Enlarged winds, that curl the flood,
Know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
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,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.


"To Althea, from Prison" was written by Richard Lovelace in 1642 as a result of Lovelace’s imprisonment. That year, Richard Lovelace presented a petition to the British parliament that protested the Bishops Exclusion Bill. [2] The bill prevented those heavily involved with the Churches of England from enacting any temporal control. Lovelace, on the other hand, protested that the role of Anglican Bishops that were excluded should be restored in Parliament.

Althea's identity is unknown. "She may even have been a product of Lovelace's imagination. However, evidence suggests she was a woman named Lucy Sacheverell."[1] The poem is quoted in the sixth chapter of Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette, and may have inspired the scenario of Emily Brontë's much-admired poem "The Prisoner". It is also mentioned in Charlotte Smith's novel Marchmont, which has a protagonist named Althea. Margaret Atwood also quotes the famous lines in her novel Hag-Seed when Felix is bringing Anne-Marie into Fletcher Correctional Center (Ch 24, p.145).

Musical settings and recordings[edit]

The poem has been set to music by the British folk group Fairport Convention with music by Dave Swarbrick and features on their album Nine. A highly regarded version likewise appeared on the album Morning Tempest (2000) by Jane and Amanda Threlfall and often features as a highlight/encore of their live performances. It has also been recorded by the folk group Three Pressed Men on their first album Daddy Fox as well as by the Churchfitters on their album New Tales for Old. It was also set by American composer Thomas Avinger in 1960 as one in a set of songs from Lucasta Et Cetera for tenor and instrumental ensemble. It is also suggested that American songwriter Robert Hunter drew inspiration from the poem for the song "Althea" performed by Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Cummings, Michael. "To Althea, From Prison: Analysis". Retrieved 2018-01-23.
  2. ^ "The Life of Richard Lovelace (1618-1657)". Retrieved 2018-01-23.