Lorraine Balint----- Intro to Literature---- November 9, 2003
"Luke Havergal" by Edwin Arlington Robinson
1.) Who is the speaker of this poem?
The persona is never identified. In the first two stanzas, it may well be Luke's own longing that is suggesting where he should go to hear his lost lover's call. In the third, it is revealed that the speaker is, seemingly, a ghost, though that, too, might be a figment of Luke's imagination. The "ghost", however, does NOT appear to be that of Luke's lady, since he/she/or it speaks of her in the objective third person.
The "ghost" could be that of another lover who endured the same kind of separation, or a previous rival for the young lady's love, or, perhaps, the Devil, or some malicious spirit (who speaks of the imminent darkness solving Luke's dilemma, rather than waiting for the dawn,, a self-destructing God, and "hell.... more than half of paradise", possibly referring to a forbidden kind of love), trying to tempt Luke to some drastic action, suicide or even murder, to reclaim the woman he has lost, whether to death or to another man.
2.) What does the speaker ask Luke to do?
The speaker tells Luke to go to the "western gate", where there are "crimson leaves" clinging to the wall, and wait until twilight. If Luke can resist "the whispering" of the falling leaves, he will hear his woman's call--- to where, or what ultimate fate, is not stated. The speaker (who, as I pointed out in # 1, may be be an evil spirit) even orders Luke not to listen to the "dead words"--- warnings?--- of the "crimson leaves"---blood?--- being torn from the "western wall"---Death, a cemetery, the setting sun? (most old tombstones in New England used to be placed to face the setting sun.)
The "ghost" tells Luke that he/she/it has come to "quench the kiss that blinds you to the way you must go"---- whose kiss? Perhaps the righteous, innocent kiss of Luke's mother or sister (since it is upon his forehead rather than his lips), given in loving sympathy for his loss, or to comfort him in an illness that may have also have killed his girl? This "glowing" kiss must be "quenched", to free Luke to follow the one "bitter" path left open for him to join his beloved. Though, whether this means suicide as many readers believe (perhaps, Luke's girl had already killed herself at that western gate), attempting vengeance upon a rival, or just sneaking out of the house while very ill, is never made clear.
(It is pertinent to note that Robinson, whose personal, romantic, and family failures inspired much of his poetry, wrote another ambiguous poem, "The Mill", where it is strongly implied that a desperate miller, put out of work by modern machinery, hangs himself, and that his grief-stricken widow throws herself into the river, but, again, NEITHER fate is firmly set forth, and may also be figments of the wife's unhappy imagination.)
3.) Should Luke Havergal follow the Speaker's advice?
While most grief-stricken former lovers, abruptly deprived of their romances by death or desertion, often FEEL desperate enough to attempt extreme actions, of course, they should NOT, and those who are closest to them should certainly try to prevent them from doing so. Whatever the Speaker intends for Luke, it is obviously not for the young man's good, and will, most likely, end in his own death, whether deliberately, by his own hand, or in conflict with a rival, or in a delirium caused by sickness.
It IS known what Robinson himself did in such a miserable situation. He met his "soulmate" in his late teens, but, convinced that he could not support a family AND write poetry (his other, demanding love), introduced her to his older, "sucessful" brother, who promptly wed her himself. The marriage, of course, turned out badly, and Robinson eventually left town to keep from "interfering". (He didn't head "west", though, just "southwest" to NYC from Gardiner, Maine.) Though other women were attracted to him, he never married, and, though he knew some financial success from his writing, lived most of the rest of his life in poverty and alcoholism.
Robinson often picked "meaningful" names for the characters in his poetry.
"Luke Havergal" could be a contraction of "Luke, have your gal"
(by force) or "Have a gal" (that doesn't really BELONG to Luke, just someone
he desires); "Lucifer's gal" (not a real girl, but an image of temptation
conjured by Satan); havoc (possible destruction) or even in the sense of a "Haven"---
a place of rest and refuge.
1.) List everything you know about the Speaker.
The Speaker is not human, but some kind of spirit, whether real (in the poem's context), or emanating from Luke's own mind, is not specified. The Speaker advises Luke, apparently from some previous similar experience, and implies that he/she/it knows where Luke's sweetheart is, and how to communicate with her.
The Speaker does not encourage optimistic thoughts or actions, but instead seems intent on keeping Luke "blind" to his other options. The Speaker is not an atheist, but a nihilist who DOES encourage immoral behavior, perhaps sexual as well as ethical ("No, there is not a dawn in the eastern skies /To rift the fiery night that's in your eyes.... /The dark will end the dark, if anything; /God slays himself with every leaf that flies, /and hell is more than half of paradise...") The speaker discourages Luke from questioning the wisdom of his/her/its advice, and is impatient that Luke get to that western gate before anything (or anyone) should detain and/ or restrain him.
2.) List essential information you wish you knew, but were not told.
What ARE Luke's circumstances? Is he old or young? Is he just brooding, or is he sick, perhaps at the crucial point in his illness? Has he committed a crime, possibly against the woman he longs for, and is, perhaps, awaiting capture or even execution? Was he the husband, or just the lover, of the woman for whose call he is supposed to listen?
Did the woman actually die, or did she leave him for another man? If the latter, is she calling Luke because she regrets her decision, or is Luke being tempted to interrupt her rendezvous with her new lover, or to take her from her current husband?
If she is dead, did she kill herself, did she die from sickness, or did another man kill her, or did Luke kill her, or cause her death in some way?
Who is the Speaker? True ghost, a true demon, OR the personification of Luke's grief and/or desires and/or conscience? What is the "fiery night" in his eyes? Grief over his beloved, or inner conflict over how to handle this grief?
What is the Western Gate? Is it a real place? Is it where Luke's woman killed herself, or was killed? Is it a cemetery, or Death itself?
What is the glowing kiss on Luke's brow, that is supposedly keeping him from following his girl? A kiss from a fond parent or sibling, or a new, more hopeful and innocent love interest?
What are the "red vines and leaves"? A symbol of blood vessels, of Life itself?
What are the winds? Are they clearing a path to Luke's "paradise", or are they the bitter winds of wrongful, painful desire that beset the adulterers in "Dante's Inferno"?