To Althea, from Prison
Stanza 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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,
- As in the previous two stanzas, the third stanza opens with a big long "When" sentence ("When x, then y").
- Using a simile, the speaker is comparing himself to "committed linnets." Cool. What's a linnet?
- Well, a linnet is a species of song-bird. "Committed" here means "caged." Once again, we're reminded of the speaker's position as a prisoner.
- This time around, the speaker tells us about what happens when, like a caged bird, he sings with a "shriller throat" than even these birds can. Sounds painful.
- Not really, though. "Shrill" means high-pitched and "throat" is another use of metonymy to mean "voice."
- So, the speaker will sing more sweetly, louder, and in a higher pitch than the little birdies. What's more, he'll sing of the "sweetness, mercy, majesty" of his king.
- Oh snap! Here the speaker drops the subtlety and comes right out to praise his king. He promises to keep on doing so, too. He'll celebrate how good the king is now, and how great he should be in future.
- Although the speaker is talking about openly praising the King of England (not a good idea in the 1640s, when such plain speaking could land you in prison), there's another layer of meaning at work here. One can see this act of "singing" as really a metaphor for writing. After all, poetry comes from the tradition of being sung, or at least chanted, out loud. In a way, this very poem is a kind of protest song. It also seems that the speaker's referring to the written word, to the poetry we are reading right this very moment.
Enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,
Know no such liberty.
- When the speaker sings about his king, "Enlargèd winds" don't enjoy ("know") the same liberty that he does.
- "Enlargèd" refers to a wind that has been made larger or more powerful than a regular wind (i.e., gotten larger). And "curl" here means to turn or hold back.
- The speaker's describing a wind so powerful that it can divert an entire body of water. (A "flood" of water doesn't refer to our sense of catastrophic flooding, but really just any body of water like the ocean or a river.)
- In other words, even when he's in prison and singing really loudly, he's freer than really powerful winds, which can travel far and wide without restraint. The speaker also implies that his song is not only freer but more powerful than "enlarged winds" (just think of hurricane winds and all the havoc they can wreak).
- It's almost like saying that words (voice, throat, song) are more powerful than actions (the wind).
- Notice that, yet again, the speaker concludes his stanza with the phrase "know such liberty" (this is the third time he has done this). Yup, we're in refrain territory now!