English poet, born at Woolwich (southeast London) in 1618. He was a scion of a Kentish family, and inherited a tradition of military distinction, maintained by successive generations from the time of King Edward III. His father, Sir William Lovelace, had served in the Low Countries, received the honor of knighthood from King James I, and was killed at Grolle in 1628. His brother, Francis Lovelace, the "Colonel Francis" of Lucasta, served on the side of King Charles I, and defended Caermarthen in 1644. His mother's family was legal; her grandfather had been chief baron of the exchequer. Richard was educated at the Charterhouse and at Gloucester Hall, Oxford, where he matriculated in 1634. Through the request of one of the queen's ladies on the royal visit to Oxford he was made M.A., though only in his second year at the university.
Lovelace's fame has been kept alive by a few songs and the romance of his career, and his poems are commonly spoken of as careless improvisations, and merely the amusements of an active soldier. But the unhappy course of his life gave him more leisure for verse-making than opportunity of soldiering. Before the outbreak of the civil war in 1642 his only active service was in the bloodless expedition which ended in the Pacification of Berwick in 1640. On the conclusion of peace he entered into possession of the family estates at Bethersden, Canterbury, Chart and Halden in Kent. By that time he was one of the most distinguished of the company of courtly poets gathered around Queen Henrietta, who were influenced as a school by contemporary French writers of vers de société. He wrote a comedy, The Scholar, when he was sixteen, and a tragedy, The Soldier, when he was twenty-one. From what he says of Fletcher, it would seem that this dramatist was his model, but only the prologue and epilogue to his comedy have been preserved. When the rupture between king and parliament took place, Lovelace was committed to the Gatehouse at Westminster for presenting to the Commons in 1642 a petition from Kentish royalists in the king's favor. It was then that he wrote his most famous song, "To Althea from Prison." He was liberated, says Wood, on bail of £40,000 (more probably £4000), and throughout the civil war was a prisoner on parole, with this security in the hands of his enemies. He contrived, however, to render considerable service to the king's cause. He provided his two brothers with money to raise men for the Royalist army, and befriended many of the king's adherents.
He was especially generous to scholars and musicians, and among his associates in London were Henry Lawes and John Gamble, the Cottons, Sir Peter Lely, Andrew Marvell and probably Sir John Suckling. He joined the king at Oxford in 1645, and after the surrender of the city in 1646 he raised a regiment for the service of the French king. He was wounded at the siege of Dunkirk, and with his brother Dudley, who had acted as captain in his brother's command, returned to England in 1648. It is not known whether the brothers took any part in the disturbances in Kent of that year, but both were imprisoned at Petre House in Aldersgate. During this second imprisonment he collected and revised for the press a volume of occasional poems, many if not most of which had previously appeared in various publications. The volume was published in 1649 under the title of Lucasta, his poetical name -- contracted from Lux Casta -- for a lady rashly identified by Wood as Lucy Sacheverell, who, it is said, married another during his absence in France, on a report that he had died of his wounds at Dunkirk. The last ten years of Lovelace's life were passed in obscurity. His fortune had been exhausted in the king's interest, and he is said to have been supported by the generosity of friends. He died in 1658 "in a cellar in Longacre", according to Aubrey, who, however, possibly exaggerates his poverty. A volume of Lovelace's Posthume Poems was published in 1659 by his brother Dudley. They are of inferior merit to his own collection.
The world has done no injustice to Lovelace in neglecting all but a few of his modest offerings to literature. But critics often do him injustice in dismissing him as a gay cavalier, who dashed off his verses hastily and cared little what became of them. It is a mistake to class him with Suckling; he has neither Suckling's easy grace nor his reckless spontaneity. We have only to compare the version of any of his poems in Lucasta with the form in which it originally appeared to see how fastidious was his revision. In many places it takes time to decipher his meaning. The expression is often elliptical, the syntax inverted and tortuous, the train of thought intricate and discontinuous. These faults -- they are not of course to be found in his two or three popular lyrics, "Going to the Wars", "To Althea from Prison", "The Scrutiny" -- are, however, as in the case of his poetical master, John Donne, the faults not of haste but of over-elaboration. His thoughts are not the first thoughts of an improvisatore, but thoughts ten or twenty stages removed from the first, and they are generally as closely packed as they are far-fetched.