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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

To Lucasta, Going to the Wars

Given that yesterday was Memorial Day, this seems like an appropriate time to share with all of you one of my all-time favorite poems. If you are already poetry readers, I imagine you know and love this one well, and, if not, prepare yourself for beauty, courtesy of 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.

This is one of very few poems I actually have committed, in its entirety, to memory (I have a deplorable memory, and I'm also shamefully bad at spelling. Ok, good -- it's out in the open now, so everyone can just relax already, alright?). It helps, of course, that it is so short, but really it is the last line that does it for me, that makes it so worth the remembering. When I read A Tale of Two Cities with my sophomores last year, a surprising number of them were critical of Charles Darnay when, facing almost certain death, he returned to France to save a man who was only in danger because he had served as custodian of Charles' property in France. What about his wife and child, they all protested. How could he leave them behind? He was being irresponsible, and should have stayed at home and taken care of them. Perhaps I'm wrong on this, and my students' initial convictions lead me to believe I might have been, but I thought it was obvious that he should go. A Tale of Two Cities aside, let's look at Lucasta.

The rebuke of the speaker in the first line is undeniable, and yet so tender and mild, perhaps more understanding than the Lady's words have merited. He wouldn't be asking her not to be unkind if she hadn't already said some awful things to him, and the direct imperative with which the poem begins leaves us in no doubt of the firmness of the speaker's position on the subject. Next, the contrast of lines 2 and 3 with line 4 is striking; words like chaste, nunnery, quiet, when held in juxtaposition with flying off to war and arms, help us to understand the change he's about to undergo, and how little this lady he loves can understand and relate to a world that is about to take her place in enveloping him.

The idea of his being enveloped is an image further intensified with the words arms, embrace, mistress, chase, and his clear analogy of moving from the close physical union of one woman to the personified "woman" of the battlefield. No wonder Lucasta is angry! She's being replaced in his affections, and he's going to embrace not only a sword, but even a horse rather than her!

Luckily for her, she has it all wrong, as her valiant warrior soon makes clear. When he uses the word inconstancy, he is not saying what he actually thinks (this is my interpretation -- feel free to argue this point with me): he is using a word that he has heard Lucasta use, a word that this woman he loves has used unkindly against him. He is not running in pursuit of a new mistress, the enemy of the battlefield, because he is unhappy and restless at home, or because he is shiftless and trying to come up with a good rationale for shirking his manly responsibilities on the home front. He is running because he loves her: I could not love thee, Dear, so much, loved I not Honour more. Ultimately, if he did not go where he was in honor bound to go, he would not be capable of giving her all the love that he wants to give her. Putting honor first makes him enough of a man that he is not only capable, but eligible and worthy of loving his Dear. If Lucasta's warrior was instead a chap who would sit at home and not go to the war when the country needed defending, when duty and honor called him, I imagine she would soon find herself regretting she had ever become attached to such a sorry fellow. Ultimately, the speaker's pursuit of honor is not in competition with his love of Lucasta. Rather, the former enables the latter -- the man's love of honor allows him to love the woman.

So yes, Charles Darnay should have gone to France, as he did, and Lucie, his wife, being the paragon of virtue that she is, would, I am sure, have reprimanded him justly and severely if he had left his custodian to fend for himself. 

My wonderful big brother, Lt Philip Turner, USMC, and his beautiful wife, Rosie
Pray for God's blessing on all of our veterans, and on everyone currently serving in the military. And God bless their families, too. Being Lucasta isn't easy.


  1. I don't think it is fair to say that she was unkind to him. Even though he says it, I think he was likely answering an unspoken rebuke, likely even a rebuke from his own heart more than from hers. He had conflicting duties and he was explaining to himself perhaps more than to L how those duties could actually be complementary. :)

    1. Ok. Hmmm... Well, I do like the idea that the rebuke is coming from his own heart, that this is all an internal struggle. When I read it, though, I of course can sympathize and identify with a Lucasta who would, in her sadness, actually say some pretty mean things. Maybe you're a better wife than I would be!

  2. A very Cornélian poem... One can only love an honorable person, but honor always tugs at attachment.

  3. Dr. Williams,

    Could you run that by me again? "Cornelian" with an accent over the e. Certainly not from the word "corn" as in corny. Please forgive my ignorance. "...honor always tugs at attachment." The one who is honorable always finds himself attached to something or someone?

  4. I was referring to the 17th century French dramatist, Pierre Corneille, whose plays generally deal with the conflict between love and honor. And I'm afraid I didn't express myself very well. I meant that honor pulls us away from human attachments... we must frequently sacrifice those attachments in satisfying the exigencies of a higher ideal. So we leave hearth and home to fight a war, for example.

    1. Dr. Williams, it seems that the honor you are speaking of, while it might pull us away physically from the object of our human attachments, is not in conflict with those attachments. It is for the sake of them that the honor is upheld. Leaving hearth and home to fight a war is FOR hearth and home, and so would, it seems, only increase the strength of "the fighter's" human bonds. The way I've always understood this conflict between love and honor, particularly in the context of this poem, is that love, properly understood, sees the necessity for the pursuit of honor because it allows for an augmentation of that love. I guess in simpler terms one might say, if you don't know what it means to be honorable, then how on earth can you expect to know how to love someone?

    2. This gets very tricky for people like Aeneas who are attached to two different people and has duties in conflict with one another in regards to those two people (Dido and Ascansius).