How can one determine the traits of each character in Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Luke Havergal"?  

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Analyzing the characters in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Luke Havergal” is difficult, partly because both the characters and the poem's tone seem so deliberately mysterious.

The poem opens by addressing the title character as if the speaker already knows Luke and feels close enough to him to give him advice. We don’t yet know the speaker's identity, and, when we later discover who he (or she) claims to be, we still don’t know much.

Everything the speaker says inevitably characterizes the speaker, and in fact we end the poem knowing at least as much about the speaker as about anyone else, if not more. The speaker's tone is confident and self-assured. The speaker dispenses advice without any reluctance or hesitation, although seeming to favor metaphorical and mysterious phrasing, so that by the end of the poem it still isn’t absolutely clear what s/he wants Havergal to do. The fact that Havergal never responds may suggest that he is passive or even paralyzed. It might even suggest that the speaker's voice is heard only in Havergal’s own head and may be a mere figment of his own imagination. If that is the case, then anything we assume about the character of the speaker seems relevant to Havergal’s personality as well.

            Lines 9-10 are especially interesting:

No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies

To rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes . . .

Does the “No” here imply that Havergal is silently objecting – or has previously objected – to the kind of advice he is being given in this poem?  This is a question to which there is no certain answer. What does seem sure, once again, is that the unnamed speaker is very confident about his/her own opinions.  The fact that Havergal has (or is said to have) a “fiery night” in his eyes may imply that he is anguished, angry, or both, or perhaps filled with some other strong emotion(s). Indeed, the more closely one examines this poem, the more ambiguous it seems.  The more closely one looks at its phrasing, the more difficult that phrasing seems to interpret in any definitive way.  In short, the poem does not make it easy to characterize any of the persons (Havergal, the female, the speaker) whom it mentions or implies.

Lines 17-18 imply that the unnamed female once kissed Havergal on his forehead in a way that he has never forgotten.  Why on the forehead? What was her intention in kissing him there? What does the speaker mean when he says that the glow of that kiss “blinds you to the way that you must go” [20]? The answers to none of these questions are clear – not because Robinson was an incompetent poet but because he seems to have wanted, in this work, to create an air of profound ambiguity and bafflement.

If the voice (as some have suggested) is trying to convince Havergal to kill himself, what are we to make of that?  Does this mean that the voice is a demonic voice, as some Christians might suggest? If Havergal does kill himself, will he be condemned to eternal misery? (Consider the strange claim that “hell is more than half of paradise” [14]. How did the female die? Did she herself commit suicide? Is she herself in hell?  It would be easy to read the poem this way, but it might be just as easy to read it in other ways as well. Robinson ultimately raises far more questions about his characters than he answers.

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