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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 April 2023

Browsing his library at home, Malcolm Guite chances upon a little reminder of liberty

THE disadvantage of having had to reshelve my library on moving house is that I can never find the book I’m looking for. The advantage is that I can always find the book I’m not looking for! So it was the other day when, looking in vain for something heavy by T. S. Eliot, I happened upon something light and lovely by Richard Lovelace.

The Lovelace lyric was in a little vellum-bound volume that caught my eye as I was scanning my shelves. It bore the two words English Lyrics on its spine. I pulled it off the shelf, and remembered how this volume had first caught my eye 45 years earlier, when, as a student, I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge.

Published in 1883, it is a lovely piece of late-Victorian Aestheticism, its handmade paper beautifully set and printed, with the title page in red as well as black ink. It’s a collection of lyric poems from the early 16th to the 19th centuries, from Thomas Wyatt to Thomas Lovel Beddoes; and, on that day in 1978, it was all mine for a fiver — a sum that would now scarcely buy me a pint in London!

I pulled it fondly from the shelf, remembering what pleasure it had given me, both the day I bought it — my first vellum-bound book — and over the many years since, dipping into it for its sheer variety: Herbert and Herrick were there, but so were Byron and Shelley, and often, when I discovered a new poet by randomly opening the pages of this anthology, I would then go into the college library to read and find out more. It was like being given a key, or a map, or the freedom of a literary city.

And, on this occasion, as I pulled it from the shelf, the book fell open at a few choice lyrics by Sir Richard Lovelace, and I found myself rereading, rediscovering, his famous poem “To Althea, from Prison”. Poor Lovelace, that archetypal Royalist and Cavalier poet, had been sent by the people of Kent, his own county, to deliver a Royalist petition to Parliament, and was arrested for his pains and imprisoned in the Gatehouse Prison adjoining Westminster Abbey. Such was the response of the Mother of Parliaments to the petitions of the people.

What he chose to write in prison was a defiant poem in praise of liberty. Everyone knows the famous opening of its final verse:


Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.


But perhaps the lines that follow are less famous, though they beautifully summarise the whole poem. The poem moves from a celebration of his freedom in love, free to love “Althea”, wherever he is, to his freedom to honour and praise the King, even when imprisoned by the Parliament that opposed him; and so, in the very last lines, he sums those freedoms up:


If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone, that soar above,
Enjoy such liberty.


I was glad to have happened again upon a little book that had so enlarged and freed my mind as a young man. As I reshelved it, I found myself hoping that a book with this poem in it is still to be found somewhere in every prison library.

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