How many characters are mentioned or implied in Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Luke Havergal"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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SOMETHING EXTRA: Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Luke Havergal" invites attention from critics or analysts who are concerned with the roles of gender in literature. After all, the poem clearly has one male as a character and one female as a character, but it also has a character (the speaker) who is never "gendered" -- that is, never clearly identified as either male or female. Perhaps this lack of clear gender identity is just one more way in which the poem is mysterious and thought-provoking. Not only do we not know the precise motives of the speaker, but we do not even know the speaker's precise gender (if any).

One of the most interesting aspects of the speaker, when that figure is studied from the perspective of gender, is that the speaker can seem to reveal both stereotypically "male" and stereotypically "female" traits. On the one hand, the speaker reveals the stereotypically "male" traits of confidence, assertiveness, self-assurance, and outspokenness.  On the other hand, the speaker can be seen almost as a kind of temptress who speaks about, and on behalf of, the mysteriously dead female. The speaker can be seen as trying to entice Havergal, perhaps to kill himself. If the speaker is gendered as female, she can almost be seen as a kind of witch figure:

Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,

Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.

Out of a grave I come to tell you this—

To tell you this.

Yet, as has already been indicated, assigning any clear gender role to this speaker seems nearly impossible, and that is just one part of the fascinating ambiguity of this poem.

 

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Three human characters or persons are mentioned or implied in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Luke Havergal,” including

  • Luke Havergal himself, who seems to have somehow lost (presumably through death) a female (presumably a wife or lover) who was very dear to him.
  • The unidentified female, whose identity is left fairly mysterious. The fact that she apparently kissed Havergal implies, perhaps, some erotic component to their relationship.
  • The unidentified speaker of the poem, who claims to be the voice of someone who has already died. Whether this voice is “real” or imagined is never made entirely clear.

References to all three persons mentioned or implied in the poem come together in the following lines:

Yes, there is yet one way to where she is,

Bitter, but one that faith may never miss.

Out of a grave I come to tell you this—

To tell you this.  (21-24; emphasis added)

The “you” here is Havergal; the “she” is the unnamed female; and the “I” is the mysterious speaker from beyond the grave.

One other “person,” however, is mentioned in the poem: God, who appears in the cryptic claim that “God slays Himself with every leaf that flies” (13). If we assume that the speaker of the poem is trying to convince Havergal to commit suicide, then the reference here to self-slaying is appropriate to one of the larger themes of the poem.

 

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