The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Luke Havergal” is a haunting poem of thirty-two lines about a desperately bereaved man being tempted by a voice from the grave to commit suicide in order to reunite with a beloved woman who is dead.

One of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s finest performances, “Luke Havergal” was a favorite of President Theodore Roosevelt, who, even though he promoted the poem and the poet’s career, found the contents of the poem to be obscure in meaning. Although Robinson by his own admission aimed “to put a little mysticism” in his verses, the morbid death-prone mysticism of “Luke Havergal” is not all that difficult to decipher. The poem conveys, through sound and image, a compelling emotion of a half-crazed longing for love that entices a man grieving over the death of his beloved woman to take his own life.

Reared in Gardiner, Maine, Edwin Arlington Robinson created a mythical “Tilbury Town” out of his New England birthplace and populated the fictional place with eccentrics, such as this desolate lover, who lead wasted, blighted, or impoverished lives. The poet was an American exemplar of the realism permeating European literature, especially novels and short stories, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Appropriately,“Luke Havergal” reads like a revealing and realistic short story in verse, providing readers with a snapshot portrait of a lonely main character; its “plot” is a sad case of grief-stricken abandonment of the...

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Luke Havergal Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Luke Havergal” is a lyric poem consisting of four stanzas whose prevailing meter is iambic pentameter with variations. The eighth line of each stanza is an iambic dimeter beat echoing the sound and sense of the previous line in its closing words (“In eastern skies,” “To tell you this,” “Luke Havergal”).

Of particular interest in each eight-line stanza is the unusual and intricate rhyme scheme (aabbaaaa), which repeats final sounds so as to convey a powerfully cumulative insistence in the voice’s seduction of poor Luke Havergal. This repetition of final sounds combines with the repetitious last two lines of each stanza to provide Luke with an almost unavoidable compulsion to commit a romantic suicide.

The images and allusions all stress darkness and death—the destination and terrible outcome of Luke Havergal’s romantic desolation and desperation. In contrast to the rising sun of “eastern skies” is Luke’s wild “twilight” time for a walk to the gloomy “western gate” of the setting sun, under which vines bloom to a terminal blood-red ripeness and where leaves fall like fleeting and fading words that are ultimately indecipherable. Luke’s eyes are fiery red, and his forehead is flushed crimson. It provides him with an unnatural light for his way into the dark on his topsy-turvy pilgrimage into hell, activated by his misplaced fidelity to the memory of his beloved dead lady. Like a God who slays Himself—possibly like a Christ-Creator who allows Himself to be crucified—Luke finds himself tempted to harrow hell, through suicide, in an attempt to recover the object of his desire.

Most important, this suicidal pilgrimage may well be Robinson’s modern version of the classical journey into Hades by a Roman hero such as Aeneas. Aeneas was similarly drawn into a dark rendezvous with his dead lover, Queen Dido, under the guidance of the Sibyl, the Roman prophetess at Cumae in Vergil’s great epic poem, the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). In fact, the ruling motif of Robinson’s entire poem seems to be this classical allusion to the Sibyl at Cumae by the gates of Hades. The motif of the Vergilian journey into Hades acts as an implicit underlying contrast for the desperate romantic plight of a modern antihero, Luke Havergal.

Luke Havergal Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Anderson, Wallace L. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Coxe, Louis. Edwin Arlington Robinson: The Life of Poetry. New York: Pegasus, 1969.

Franchere, Hoyt C. Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Twayne, 1968.

Joyner, Nancy Carol. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Murphy, Francis, ed. Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Smith, Chard Powers. Where the Light Falls: A Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: Macmillan, 1965.