"Luke Havergal": Explained
I've long been deeply puzzled by E.A. Robinson's poem "Luke Havergal" -- though I'm not the only baffled one. Theodore Roosevelt, of all people, wrote a review of the poem, along with his review of the book The Children of the Night, in which the poem was published in 1897, and Roosevelt admitted, "I am not sure I understand 'Luke Havergal,' but I am entirely sure I like it." I, too, so here it is:
Luke HavergalOn Friday morning, in my course "Introduction to English Literature," I think that my class and I came to an understanding of this poem.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,
And in the twilight wait for what will come.
The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,
Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;
But go, and if you listen she will call.
Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal --
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies
To rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes;
But there, where western glooms are gathering,
The dark will end the dark, if anything:
God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,
And hell is more than half of paradise.
No, there is not a dawn in eastern skies --
In eastern skies.
Out of a grave I come to tell you this,
Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss
That flames upon your forehead with a glow
That blinds you to the way that you must go.
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.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal,
There are the crimson leaves upon the wall.
Go, for the winds are tearing them away, --
Nor think to riddle the dead words they say,
Nor any more to feel them as they fall;
But go, and if you trust her she will call.
There is the western gate, Luke Havergal --
Luke Havergal's lover has committed suicide and is calling to Luke from the grave, inviting him to join her in hell by commiting suicide, for hell is none so bad, being "more than half of paradise" -- as we modern readers, following Milton's description of a hell improved through the efforts of the demons, are well aware.Was Robinson (1869–1935) partly inspired by John Davidson (1857–1909), who wrote the poem "A Ballad of Hell," which uses the belief that suicide sends one to hell? I've not been able this morning to find a solid date for the publication of Davidson's poem, but one online source gave the year 1895. Robinson published his collection in 1897, which makes the link rather tenuous.
(Possibly, the one calling from the grave is distinct from Luke Havergal's lover, but this is a detail. As for other details, such as the seeming pantheism of line 13 ... well, details are details. I'm merely trying to set forth a generally plausible overall understanding of the poem, within which the various details can be discussed. My half-ironic 'Explained' thus indicates a very general level of explanation.)
In any case, the idea of a couple commiting suicide to join each other in hell depends upon the traditional Christian belief that suicide was a mortal sin because it was the premeditated murder of oneself, it was an act of despair rather than of faith, and it was the intentional destruction of a being made in the image of God.
Actually, I guessed at those three things, but I'm also guessing that I'm right.
Anyway, Davidson's poem "A Ballad of Hell" can be found at Bartleby.com (beware the pop-up). I'm less enamored of it than I was as a 10th-grader in Salem High School, when I was the only one in my class who knew that Catholic doctrine condemned suicides to hell. Everybody was Protestant, including me (much of the Ozarks being Protestant country).
How I knew even that little detail about Catholicism, I no longer recall.