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retread| Ten Poems: Lovelace’s “Lucasta” 7 April 2007

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Poetry, Psychology, Relationships, Reviews.
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Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 28 Sep 2006.

“Love me as I am,” we hear. “Don’t try to change me.” We don’t love heroes anymore, or maidens or heroines or saints. We love our best friends, our lab partners, our shipping clerks. And promise to love them just as they are.

So strange, then, to hear an appeal to love in the service of a higher cause.

TO LUCASTA, GOING TO THE WARS
Richard Lovelace

Tell me not, Sweet, I am unkind,
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly.

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 thou too shalt adore;
I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.

1649

First, a note on the poet: Richard Lovelace (1618-1658) was a nobleman, soldier and court poet at a time when England was at a crossroads between monarcy and representative government (he was a decided royalist, and paid for it in jail time). Although he does not enjoy the literary stature of a William Shakespeare or a John Donne, this one poem is reason enough to include Lovelace in our set of ten (I mentioned it briefly in an earlier post, but subsequently decided that I want to spend more time on the questions it raises).

The power of “To Lucasta” stems from an irony: love is subordinated to honor in the battlefield, but is somehow elevated by this association.

I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not Honour more.

The attraction of men in uniform is given a philosophical basis: romantic love is dramatized by ideals like duty, honor and virtue. To take these ideals seriously, however, is to place them beyond love. Those of you familiar with early Islamic history will see in this a trace of the story of the newlyweds Hanzalah and Jamilah, may God be pleased with them (check MOZAFFAR’s series on the subject).

The deeper insight, it would seem, is that what makes life worth living stands beyond everyday experience. Imperfect as we are, we reach for the perfect and are taller for it. If you were to accept me exactly as I am, my dear, you would get just flesh and bones. And we would both be disappointed.

Robert Bly brings home this point skilfully in Iron John: A Book About Men. He suggests that when a man falls in love with a woman, he is struck not by what he sees in her but rather what he sees through her.

Women participate in the feminine as the water in a jar participates in the light when light passes through it.

Mature lovers, Lovelace and Bly remind us, recognize that there are more important things in life than love. They live by them and ask the same of their beloved. Subordinating love to these ideals does not diminish it, however. Infused by their light, it only shines more brightly.


This post was the fifth of a ten-part series, preceded by Hughes’ “Harlem”, Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”, Yeats’ “Second Coming” and Li Bo’s “River-Merchant’s Wife”. It was also written as an oblique response to this post from MOZAFFAR on his personal blog.

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