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TO ALTHEA, FROM PRISON.
WHEN Love with unconfined wings
To whisper at the grates:
And fetter'd to her eye;
The gods that wanton in the aire
When flowing cups run swiftly round. With no allaying Thames,
Our carelesse heads with roses bound, Our hearts with loyall flames; When thirsty griefe in wine we steepe, When healths and draughts go free, Fishes that tipple in the deepe
Know no such libertie.
When (like committed linnets) I
When I shall voyce aloud, how good
Stone walls doe not a prison make,
Noble and generous sentiments! nevertheless they did not rescue Lovelace from oblivion, whilst the apologist of the murder of Charles I. has taken his stand by the side of Homer. In the first place, Lovelace was not gifted with the genius of Milton; again, he belonged, by his very nature, to ideas no longer current. Fidelity must ever command admiration; modern generations, however, are at a loss to account for such devotedness in an individual, for a virtue so confined within the limits of a particular system or attachment; they feel not the appeals of honour, whether they be insensible to that honour which is indispensible for the current apprehension of its dictates, or that they exclusively sympathise with humanity in its general acceptation,—a course, however, calculated to justify any base action. Montrose, as it is said by Cardinal de Retz, was not one of Plutarch's characters he was one of those men, the relics of an age which expires at the dawn of a new age; their ancient virtues are as lofty as their new ones, but they are unprolific; planted in an exhausted soil, they are no longer fertilised by the national
Gifted with the most fascinating manners, Colonel Richard Lovelace, whose name was perhaps borrowed by Richardson, in remembrance of his elegance, died neglected in obscurity and want.
Without being young and handsome, like Colonel Lovelace, I have been, like him, incarcerated. The governments which ruled France from 1800 to 1830 had exercised some forbearance towards a votary of the muses; Bonaparte, whom I had fiercely attacked in the Mercure, was at first prompted to despatch me; he raised his sword, but he struck not.
A generous and liberal administration, exclusively composed of literary men, of poets, writers, editors of newspapers, has proved less ceremonious towards an old comrade.
My kennel, somewhat longer than it was broad, was seven or eight feet high. The stained and bare wainscot was covered with the poetry and prose scrawled upon it by my predecessors. A pallet with soiled sheets occupied three parts of my habitation; a board supported by two trestles, placed against the wall at an elevation of two feet above the bed, served the purpose of a press for the linen, boots, and shoes of the prisoner. A chair, a table, and a small cask, as a disgusting convenience, formed the remainder of the furniture. A grated window opened at a considerable height; I was forced to mount upon the table in order to breathe fresh air, and to enjoy the light of heaven. I could only distinguish through the bars of my felon's cage, a gloomy narrow court,
and dark buildings, round which the bats kept fluttering. I heard the clank of keys and chains, the noise of the sergens de ville and spies, the pacing of soldiers, the ground of arms, the shrieks, the laughter, the obscene licentious songs of the prisoners, my neighbours, the howlings of Benoit, condemned to death as the murderer of his mother, and of his obscene friend. I could distinguish these words of Benoit, amidst his confused exclamations of fear and repentance: Alas! my mother! my poor mother! I beheld the wrong side of society, the sons of humanity, the hideous machinery which sets in motion this world, so smiling to look at in front, when the curtain is raised.
The genius of my former greatness and of my glory, represented by a life of thirty years, did not make its appearance before me; but my Muse of former days, poor and humble as she was, came all radiant to embrace me through my window; she was delighted with my abode, and full of inspiration; she found me again as she had seen me in London, in the days of my poverty, when the first dreams of Réné were floating in my mind. What were we, the solitary of Pindus and I, about to produce together? A song, in the style of Lovelace. Upon whom? Upon a king? Assuredly not! The voice of a prisoner would have
been of bad omen: it is only from the foot of our altars that hymns should be addressed to misfortune. None, moreover, but a poet of great renown can be listened to when he sings:
O toi, de ma pitié profonde
My song was not therefore of a crown fallen from an innocent brow; I was content with celebrating a different crown-a white one too, laid on the coffin of a young maiden t.
Tu dors, pauvre Elisa, si légère d'années!
Tu ne sens plus du jour le poids et la chaleur :
Jeune fille et jeune fleur.
The prefect of police, with whose behaviour I have every reason to be satisfied, offered me a more suitable asylum, as soon as he was made acquainted with the agreeable abode which the friends of the liberty of the press had considerately assigned to me for having availed myself of that liberty. The window of my new dwelling opened upon a cheerful garden. It was not enlivened by the
* V. Hugo, Odes et Ballades. † Elisa Trisel.