To Althea, from Prison
Dashing, handsome, and rich—that's one way to characterize Richard Lovelace, now remembered chiefly for a handful of poems, like this one. If you had asked somebody in 1640 about Richard Lovelace, they would have told you that he was a famous soldier, the scion (that's a fancy word for offspring) of a distinguished soldier and generally-well-to-do family. Lovelace is considered one of the Cavalier Poets, a group of poets in the first half of the seventeenth century marked by their support of Charles I, then king of England. The group included Ben Jonson, Sir John Suckling, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, and our man Lovelace.
See, all was not well in England in the 1640s. Parliament (the British version of Congress) had just about had it with King Charles (for a whole lot of reasons), and trouble was brewing. This conflict eventually caused The English Civil War, a series of three major conflicts (1642-1646, 1648-1649, 1649-1651) that resulted in the execution of Charles I in 1649. That's right. Charles I, THE KING, was beheaded. You can read more about the war here.
As you can probably imagine, supporting the king in Lovelace's day could be a dangerous thing to do. Poor Richard learned this the hard way when, in 1642, he was imprisoned in Gatehouse Prison for petitioning to have an act of Parliament repealed (it was called the Clergy Act of 1640). While in prison Lovelace composed one of his most famous poems, "To Althea, from Prison." It wasn't published, however, until 1649, when it was included in a book of poems called Lucasta.
Lovelace's poem offers a powerful statement about the powers of the human mind. The speaker essentially says that even though he is in prison, he is freer than just about everybody and everything else—birds, fish, winds. This intriguing paradox makes sense once we realize that the poem defines true freedom as the ability to re-imagine one's own situation. The human mind will always be free, just so long as one's imagination remains capable of seeing "prisons"—the poem's metaphor for any unpleasant situation—as something other than what they are (i.e., places of restriction or confinement).
Why Should I Care?
It's mind over matter, as they say. Who says that? Well, lots of people say it. It's an expression you'll hear in all kinds of contexts. Pretend, for example, that you fell off your bike, broke both of your legs, and have to use a wheelchair for a few weeks while your legs heal (you can substitute any annoying or unfortunate situation for our broken legs scenario if you like). It's rough. You can't walk, you can't take a shower, you can't drive—you pretty much can't do anything that involves your legs.
Now imagine that during your second day in a wheelchair, you're complaining about how much your situation sucks and your friend says to you, "Cheer up amigo. It's mind over matter. Your circumstances may be rough right now, but if you focus your mental power on something else besides the fact that you can't walk, you might be less upset. You might even forget that your legs are broken. It's mind (the power of your brain to have a positive attitude) over matter (your broken legs and all that comes with it)."
Well, Richard Lovelace's "To Althea from Prison" is all about mind over matter. The speaker is in prison (he would tell you that he's wrongfully imprisoned, which is even worse). And it's not just any prison, but some dirty, cold, damp place in England in 1642 (no running water, no electric or gas heating, no television, no… anything, really). And yet, despite the situation, the speaker manages to convince himself that he is "freer" than the birds that can fly around in the air and do whatever they want. How is he able to do this?
Because he has a very active imagination, and can pretend that the love of his life—Althea—comes and visits him. The poem's most famous lines—"Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage" (25-26)—tell us as much. Yes, the speaker is literally in prison, but he is able to use his mind and convince himself that his situation isn't as bad as it seems. It's (say it with us) mind over matter. Broken legs, iron bars, whatever sort of bummer that life can throw at you—these things aren't really what they seem, but only what you make of them.