Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Luke Havergal": Explained

(Image from Wikipedia)

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 Havergal

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 --
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.
On Friday morning, in my course "Introduction to English Literature," I think that my class and I came to an understanding of this poem.

Our explanation?
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.

(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.)
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.

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.

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24 Comments:

At 9:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't get the suicide part but yeah my class agree that his lover is dead and he is being proffered a chance to rejoin her through death. Good analysis

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, my students in that class probably helped with the analysis.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:29 AM, Anonymous WAK said...

This could be a meaning. EAR has often been labeled "Obscure" and difficult to understand. I once spent 6 months with this and just two other short poems of his, but the paper was never published. Mostly, it is his references that are obscure and difficult to follow. It helps to know who he was and where he had been. Many of the references are biblical, he loved games, and attended Harvard where the western wall overlooks a graveyard. Poems can speak to people on many levels to me this one is metaphysical.

 
At 12:58 AM, Anonymous WAK said...

An example of this is the two times in the poem that he makes a reference to a physical phenomna that has metaphysical implications. "The dark will end the dark, if anything" and again "...with a glow, That blinds you..." When you look at a bright light source like a candle you will observe darkness around it. When you turn it off the general darkness is brighter.

"...hell is more than half of paradise..." Could easily be a reference to Dante's The Divine Comedy composed of 100 cantos. The inferno is 33 lines but the into canto is part of it and thus making hell more than half the balance.

"Out of a grave I come to quench the kiss" can refer to the kiss given in the garden that identified Christ to the Roman soldiers.

"She" is then a kind of knowledge.

 
At 4:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WAK, thanks for the visit and comments. I'll have to think about your remarks on the poem. For instance, I don't quite follow the math on this:

"...hell is more than half of paradise..." Could easily be a reference to Dante's The Divine Comedy composed of 100 cantos. The inferno is 33 lines but the into [intro?] canto is part of it and thus making hell more than half the balance.

I've not counted, but would "Purgatory" and "Paradise" be 33 each? If so, then "Inferno" -- at 34 -- would be more than half of "Purgatory" and "Paradise" combined: Sixty-six divided by two equals thirty-three.

Half of "Paradise" alone is 16.5, which, of course, is also less than 34, but trivially so.

Perhaps I've misunderstood your point here, though.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:51 AM, Anonymous WAK said...

The primary point is that the poem has a deeper level. It was written at a time before a technical education and scientific accuracy were the mainstay of schooling. It was written at a time when the study of rhetoric was important and reading primary works was a cornerstone of a good education. The educated would have been far more familiar with the Bible and The Divine Comedy than the latest studies or analysis by experts. We need to come up to his standard to understand EAR.

The paper I referred to was written over 35 years ago and included such a line by line analysis of 3 short poems in many pages. I can't attempt to duplicate that here if my recollection were so good. For the specific addition to work and not be simply a reference to the Inferno being greater than half the Paradiso (or in some other way hell is 1/2 of paridise,) the Paradiso and the Purgatorio would have to somewhere be considered as a unit under the general title of "paradise." I have seen such a reference but can't at this time recall it.

There are so many such metaphysical references in EAR that my own poor recollection does not give me pause. The other two poems I reviewed, at the time, were the chess poems. I might be able to find the paper among the cobwebs of the catacombs.

 
At 6:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

If you recall a paper written 35 years ago, then you're doing a lot better than I. My writings slip down the memory hole as soon as I turn to some other topic.

Thanks for the additional details. Sounds like you put in a lot of work in analyzing the poem, and I'm sure that you have a lot more insight into it than I do.

My own analysis was narrowly aimed -- and the 'title' somewhat humorously intended. I wouldn't really make a serious claim to have explained "Luke Havergal."

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:12 PM, Anonymous WAK said...

And in retrospect, I smile when recalling I titled the paper, "Robinson Out the Darkness." I was explaining away his label of "obscurity." Now I measure my hubris among the many pages it took for the explaination. Thanks for spending an interesting time.

 
At 7:48 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

WAK, you're welcome. My students taught me a lot.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:36 PM, Blogger Noel said...

I always thought that the "kiss that flames upon your forehead with a glow, that blinds you to the way that you must go" was a Biblical reference as well. I assumed it was a demon (or similar evil character) attempting to lure Luke to kill himself. This evil character was explaining that the kiss of flame, much like the flame on the forehead of the apostles, was actually trying to lure Luke away from the happiness of joining his dead lover.

 
At 3:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Noel, I'll have to think about your remark. I can see how the flame upon one's head might call up images of the first Pentecost . . . but I find that difficult to make sense of in the context.

The poem is certainly mysterious. Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe throughout the entire poem Luke's lover is trying to convince him to kill himself, because she is not regretting the fact that she has committed suicide, and she will never see him again. She wants him to do so, so that she can be with him for eternity in hell and she wont have to endure eternal hell alone. She even warns him that once he does it though there is no turning back, saying that "No there is no dawn in eastern skies." She is telling him once the sun sets in the west then it shall never rise again.

 
At 6:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry she is regretting the fact that she killed herself... my mistake!

 
At 6:54 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the comment, and correction. I'll need to look again at the poem to see what I think, but your view sounds plausible.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:28 PM, Anonymous CJ said...

I have a completely different explanation.

The narrator is the poet-creator of the poem-world (not equal to God), calling the elderly Luke to his ineluctable departure. "She" is Death.

St2L2: The first dark, death, will end the second dark, either the darkness of Luke's mortal future or his perception of life on Earth as banality/inanity/absurdity/etc. Following through with this, the hell that is half of paradise is the dead, the same people who in heaven would make it a hell for Luke.

St3, ignoring all possible biblical allusions, deals with Luke's yearning for more life----which in his case is impossible. "[F]aith may never miss" ties in with St2L5 in affirming that God would not bring death to Luke (or humankind) if He could.

Anyway, that's my take.

 
At 3:43 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You may be right, CJ. I suspect that Death as speaker fits better than a vampiric dead-undead lover.

I'll have to give it some thought.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the poem evokes a wuthering heights aura

 
At 11:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The dead are certainly unquiet . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:57 AM, Anonymous rwm hunt said...

I'm afraid this is a rather Diabolical Poem.

It is written to appear to be from the dead man's lover or her emissary but rather like Robert Frost's Road Less Travelled the apparent meaning is not the meaning at all.

To read it this way you have to overlook details which can be passed off as poetic licence but actually contain important clues.

It is the Devil's entreaty to Luke, and the clues lie in every verse:

'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.'

The leaves are the voice of good which are attempting to turn Luke back. Ignore these, listen for 'her'.

'God slays Himself with every leaf that flies'

This may be a reference to Jesus as the messenger who died to try and save us.

'And hell is more than half of paradise.'

An open advertisement for Hell! But half of what? Number of souls probably. A devil's riddle to be sure.

'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'

It is a common representation of the Devil as a figure who cannot lie, for instance in James Hogg's 'Memoirs of a Justified Sinner'. Instead he talks in mistruths, riddles and slights of hand that dupe you into believing the words to mean other than what fate proves them to mean.
Here he is saying that Luke is blinded from the truth of his actions by his faith in this girl.

'Nor think to riddle the dead words they say'

Passing Gods message off as devilish riddles! That's a good one.

It was only after I'd learnt the poem to heart that I was able to see the thing as a whole but now I have it seams rather obvious, I mean, who the hell else is going to come whispering such fine entreaties from beyond the grave?

I do not say this from some Born-again Latter-day-saint A-pox-be-on-ye-Satan perspective as to be honest I preferred the poem when i first read it as a psychedelic dream narrative and I'm rather fed up with so many literary allusions to any aspect of the Abrahamic religions but there you go.

 
At 10:20 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. But I didn't understand this:

-- 'God slays Himself with every leaf that flies'

This may be a reference to Jesus as the messenger who died to try and save us. --

If the voice speaking is Satan, why would he remind Luke of Jesus's sacrifice?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:45 AM, Anonymous rwm hunt said...

'If the voice speaking is Satan, why would he remind Luke of Jesus's sacrifice?'

The Devil is often portrayed as passing over far more information than you would think he would. This ofcourse is beneficial for narrative purposes within other stories, but also illustrates how slipery a fish he is; He tells you everything, but you misread it.

Hear it reads as if God's message was in vain, and that he killed himself trying which is how he wishes to portray it, but ofcourse it does not mention the resurrection!

 
At 11:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Okay, thanks for the reading. I'll keep it in mind.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the line "God slays Himself with every leaf that flies" meant how God the creator of all life also takes that life away and the voice or demon(who I think it is) is saying to Luke if God can end his lives (or his creations) why can't Luke end his own (sorry if what I wrote is hard to understand)

 
At 9:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That "his lives" would play on two different meanings of"his" -- "his own" and "those he owns" -- but I don't see this in the poem itself.

Thanks for the comment.

Jeffery Hodges

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