Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“Luke Havergal” is an address to a lovelorn man, spoken by a seductive voice from beyond the grave to encourage him to rejoin a dead lover by taking his own life. He is told that he may find her through suicide. Although the poem might appear to display a faith in life after death, the intense desolation of his experience points, rather, to an expression of longing for death and an inability to endure more life in such grief-stricken loneliness.
Readers coming to terms with the poem should have in mind the famous classical tale of Aeneas’s walk into Hades, led by the Sibyl at Cumae (who communicated prophecies on torn leaves blown into the wind). They were on their way to meet his former lover, the dead Queen Dido, who had committed suicide; the story appears in book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid. If Luke Havergal is reminded that sacrifice is necessary for his descent into the dark and his reunion with his beloved (“God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,/ And hell is more than half of paradise”), analogously the Roman hero Aeneas must wait until the Sibyl sacrifices to the goddess of the night for his entrance into the underworld where his suicidal lover Dido passes her melancholy existence.
What follows is a paraphrase of pertinent passages from book 2 of the Aeneid for comparison with “Luke Havergal.” Aeneas had been told by the prophet Helenus to seek, upon his arrival at Italy, the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae, a woman of deep wisdom, who could foretell the future and give Aeneas proper advice for founding the great Roman empire. Aeneas found her, and she warned him that the descent to the underworld was easy but that the return was perilous. Aenas and the Sibyl found themselves in the Fields of Mourning, where unhappy lovers dwelled who had been driven to suicide. There Aeneas caught sight of Dido and, weeping, addressed her: “Was I the cause of your death? I left you against my will.” She, like a piece of marble, was silent and averted her gaze. He was shaken and wept long after he lost sight of her.