Explicating Poetry Analysis

STEP I-A: Before reading

(World Poets and Poetry)

1. “Luke Havergal” is a strophic poem composed of four equally lengthened stanzas. Each stanza is long enough to contain a narrative, an involved description or situation, or a problem and resolution.

2. The title raises several possibilities: Luke Havergal could be a specific person; Luke Havergal could represent a type of person; the name might have symbolic or allusive qualities. Thus, “Luke” may refer to Luke of the Bible or “Luke-warm,” meaning indifferent or showing little or no zeal. “Havergal” could be a play on words.“Haver” is a Scotch and Northern English word meaning to talk foolishly. It is clear from the rhyme words that the “gal” of Havergal is pronounced as if it had two “l’s,” but it is spelled with one “l” for no apparent reason unless it is to play on the word “gal,” meaning girl. Because it is pronounced“gall,” meaning something bitter or severe, a sore or state of irritation, or an impudent self-assurance, this must also be considered as a possibility. Finally, the“haver” of “Havergal” might be a perversion of “have a.”

3. Published in 1897, the poem probably does not contain archaic language unless it is deliberately used. The period of writing is known as the Victorian Age. Historical events that may have influenced the poem may be checked for later.

STEP I-C: Rereading the poem

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The frequent use of internal caesuras in stanzas 1 and 2 contrast with the lack of caesuras in stanzas 3 and 4. There are end-stopped lines and much repetition. The poem reads smoothly except for line 28 and the feminine ending on lines 11 and 12.

STEP II-A: Dramatic situation

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In line 1 of “Luke Havergal,” an unidentified speaker is addressing Luke. Because the speaker calls him by his full name, there is a sense that the speaker has assumed a superior (or at least a formal) attitude toward Luke and that the talk that they are having is not a casual conversation.

In addition to knowing something about the relationship in line 1, the reader is led to think, because of the words “go to the western gate,” that the personae must be near some sort of enclosed house or city. Perhaps Luke and the speaker are at some “other” gate, since the western gate is specifically pointed out.

Line 2 suggests that the situation at the western gate is different from that elsewhere—there “vines cling crimson on the wall,” hinting at some possibilities about the dramatic situation. (Because flowers and colors are always promising symbols, they must be carefully considered later.)

The vines in line 2 could provide valuable information about the dramatic situation, except that in line 2 the clues are ambiguous. Are the vines perennial? If so, their crimson color suggests that the season is late summer or autumn. Crimson might also be their natural color when in full bloom. Further, are they grape vines (grapes carry numerous connotations and symbolic values), and are the vines desirable? All of this in line 2 is ambiguous. The only certainty is that there is a wall—a barrier that closes something in and something out.

In lines 1-3, the speaker again commands Luke to go and wait. Since Luke is to wait in the twilight, it is probably now daylight. All Luke must do is be passive because whatever is to come will happen without any action on his part.

In line 4, the speaker begins to tell Luke what will happen at the western gate, and the reader now knows that Luke is waiting for something with feminine characteristics, possibly a woman. This line also mentions that the vines have leaves, implying that crimson denotes their waning stage.

In line 5, the speaker continues to describe what will happen at the western gate: The leaves will whisper about “her,” and as they fall, some of them will strike Luke “like flying words.” The reader, however, must question whether Luke will actually be “struck” by the leaves, or whether the leaves are being personified or being used as an image or symbol. In line...

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STEP II-B: Point of view

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There are a number of questions that immediately come to mind about the point of view. Is the speaker an evil seducer, or is he or she a friend telling Luke about death? Why is the poem told from his or her point of view?

From a generalized study, readers know that the first-person singular point of view takes the reader deep into the mind of the narrator in order to show what he or she knows or to show a personal reaction to an event.

In “Luke Havergal,” the narrator gives the following details about himself and the situation: a sense of direction (lines 1 and 9); the general type and color of the vegetation, but not enough to make a detailed analysis of it (line 2); a pantheistic view of nature (line 4); a feeling of communication with the leaves and “her” (lines 5 and 6); a philosophic view of the universe (stanza 2); the power to “quench the kiss,” a sense of mission, and a home—the grave (line 18); special vision (line 20); a sense of destiny (lines 21 and 22); and a sense of time and eternity (lines 27 through 29).

Apparently, the narrator can speak with confidence about the western gate, and can look objectively at Luke to see the kiss on his forehead. Such a vantage point suggests that the speaker might represent some aspect of death. He also knows the “one way to where she is,” leaving it reasonable to infer that “she” is dead.

There is another possibility in regard to the role of the speaker. He might be part of Luke himself—the voice of his thoughts, of his unconscious mind—or of part...

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STEP II-C: Images and metaphors

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Finding images in poems is usually not a difficult task, although seeing their relation to the theme often is. “Luke Havergal” is imagistically difficult because the images are introduced, then reused as the theme develops.

In stanza 1, the reader is allowed to form his or her own image of the setting and mood at the western gate; most readers will probably imagine some sort of mysterious or supernatural situation related to death or the dead. The colors, the sound of the words, and the particular images (vines, wall, whispering leaves) establish the relationship between the living and the dead as the controlling image of the entire poem.

Within the controlling death-in-life image, the metaphors and conceits are more difficult to handle. Vines clinging crimson on the wall (line 2) and waiting in the twilight for something to come (line 3) are images requiring no particular treatment at this point, but in lines 4 and 5 the reader is forced to contend directly with whispering leaves that are like flying words, and there are several metaphorical possibilities for this image.

First, there is the common image of leaves rustling in a breeze, and in a mysterious or enchanted atmosphere it would be very easy to imagine that they are whispering. Such a whisper, however, would ordinarily require a moderate breeze, as a fierce wind would overpower the rustling sound of leaves; but there is more ambiguity in the image: “The leaves will whisper there for her, and some,/ Like flying words, will strike you as they fall.”

Because of the syntactical ambiguity of “some,/ Like flying words, will strike,” the reader cannot be sure how close or literal is the similarity or identity of “leaves” and “words.” The reader cannot be completely sure whether it is leaves or words or both that will strike Luke, or whether the sight of falling leaves might be forcing him...

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STEP II-D: Words

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Because the poem is not too old, the reader will find that most of the words have not changed much. It is still important, however, for the reader to look up words as they may have several diverse meanings. Even more important to consider in individual words or phrases, however, is the possibility that they might be symbolic or allusive.

“Luke Havergal” is probably not as symbolic as it at first appears, although poems that use paradox and allusion are often very symbolic. Clearly the western gate is symbolic, but to what degree is questionable. No doubt it represents the last light in Luke’s life, and once he passes beyond it he moves into another type of existence. The west and the twilight are points of...

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STEP II-E: Meter, rhyme, structure, and tone

(World Poets and Poetry)

Because “Luke Havergal” is a poem that depends so heavily on all the elements of prosody, it should be scanned carefully. Here is an example of scansion using the second stanza of the poem:

Nó, thére/ is nót/ a dáwn/ in eás/tern skiésTo ríft/ the fié/ry níght/ that’s ín/ your éyes;But théré,/ whére wés/tern glóoms/ are gáth/ering,The dárk/ will énd/ the dárk,/ if án/ythig:Gód sláys/ Himsélf/ with éve/ry léaf/ that flíes,And héll/ is móre/ than hálf/ of pár/adisé.

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STEP II-F: Historical context

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Finished in December, 1895, “Luke Havergal” was in Robinson’s estimation a Symbolist poem. It is essential, then, that the explicator learn something about the Symbolist movement. If his or her explication is not in accord with the philosophy of the period, the reader must account for the discrepancy.

In a study of other Robinson poems, there are themes parallel to that of “Luke Havergal.” One, for example, is that of the alienated self. If Robinson believes in the alienated self, then it is possible that the voice speaking in “Luke Havergal” is Luke’s own, but in an alienated state. This view may add credence to an argument that the speaker is Luke’s past or subconscious, though it by no means proves...

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Coleman, Kathleen. Guide to French Poetry Explication. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.

Gioia, Dana, David Mason, and Meg Schoerke, eds. Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Kohl, Herbert R. A Grain of Poetry: How to Read Contemporary Poems and Make Them a Part of Your Life. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1999.

Lennard, John. The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical...

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