‘Luke Havergal’ by Edwin Arlington Robinson is a thirty-two line poem that is separated into four stanzas of eight lines each. These groupings of lines can also be referred to as octaves. Robinson chose to utilize the uncommon rhyme scheme of aabbaaaa, altering it as he saw fit from stanza to stanza. A reader should take particular note of the repetition of the first line end sound. This choice was made to convey a feeling of insistence. It also has a haunting quality when taken into consideration alongside the subject matter.
‘Luke Havergal’ is mostly structured in iambic pentameter. This refers to the number of beats per line. In the case of this poem, most of the lines contain five sets of beats or iambs. The first is unstressed, and the second stressed. In moments that the poem diverges the rhythmic pattern changes to iambic dimeter or two sets of beats per line. This transition can be seen in the last line of each stanza.
The poem contains an overwhelming theme of death. Each line has been written, and then conveyed by the speaker, in an effort to urge Luke Havergal on towards death. Although dark, the “urging” is done with love in mind. The speaker is ambiguous. It is her goal to convince Luke to enter into the afterlife and keep company another who has died. This piece is considered to be one of Robinson’s most successful and was known to be a favourite of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Summary of Luke Havergal
The poem begins with the speaker stating that it is time for Luke Havergal to go to the “western gate.” It is here he will leave his present unsatisfactory life and find a new one. If he does cross over, which the speaker believes is inevitable, he will have a new lover. There is a woman waiting for him.
In the following lines, the speaker describes a light in Luke Havergal’s head. It is blinding him to his correct path. She intends to put it out and steer him to the gate. The speaker makes it clear she has come from the other side to guide him.
The poem concludes with the speaker reiterating the text of the first stanza and making sure that Luke Havergal understands that his chance to find this woman is not unlimited. He must go now if he ever wants to be happy.
Analysis of 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—
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker, who is a voice inside Luke Havergal’s own head, is telling her listener to “Go.” She is asking that he make his way to the “western gate.” Without further context, one can assume that the “western gate” is a metaphor for death. This is due to the simple fact of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.
The speaker takes the time to describe the place she would like Luke Havergal to go. The gate is where “vines cling crimson on the wall.” This makes an interesting contrast as the vines should be green, but in this instance they are red. It is a foreboding sign, but also one representing passion and promise. Once Luke Havergal gets to where he is going, he is told to wait. While at the gate, something “will come.” The speaker makes this seem inevitable. No matter what Luke Havergal does he will end up there.
While he is waiting at the gate “twilight” will appear over the land and the leaves will speak to him. The environment will inform him that she is “there.” The person to whom the speaker refers to a possible lover for Luke. She is the one waiting for him. It is a relationship with this unknown person that is driving Luke to these thoughts.
The distance created through these lines makes the tone even more eery. While the leaves are speaking to him, they might also fall and “strike” Luke Havergal. This is to let him know that he is being watched and waited for. The pain of the individual strikes will be brought back into the narrative in the last stanza. The next lines encourage Luke Havergal to go on further. He must continue to the “western gate.” He doesn’t really have a choice.
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.
In the next set of lines, the speaker seems to be replying to one of Luke Havergal’s own thoughts. This makes sense as her voice is inside his own mind. He is looking around him and thinks he sees the “dawn in eastern skies.” The speaker informs him that this is not the case. It is the “fiery night that’s in” his eyes. He has a passion within him, it is his own light he should be following. Not the false promise of another dawn. These lines work to dissuade Luke Havergal from going to the east.
In the following verses, he is told that there is “gloom” in the “west.” A darkness will soon come over the land and he needs to be there. The dark is not something he should fear though. It’s coming will “end the dark.” It is “God” who is making this happen. These lines paint death as something to be walked toward. One should not flinch from it. Luke is being led, by his own thoughts and the possibility of love, to an early grave.
This is further emphasized by the speaker telling Luke that “hell” is a part of paradise. In fact, it is more than half. Heaven and hell are not that dissimilar. One should not avoid death in fear of either. The stanza ends with a repetition of the speaker’s plea to ignore the “eastern skies” and move to the west. A new, bright day does not matter when there is love waiting on the other side of death.
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.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes how she has come to tell him these particular facts. The voice within Luke’s head is doing everything it can to convince him that suicide is the right option. She tempts Luke with a “kiss” she knows he wants. The kiss will please him but it will also put out the “flames upon” his forehead. These flames are keeping him from fully understanding his path in life. They blind him to the death that he should embark on.
In the second set of four lines, the speaker explains that Luke Havergal has one way to get into the afterlife to “where she is.” It is “bitter” to take one’s own life, but it must be done if he wants to see her. The voice once more reiterates that she has come to tell him this is the only way he can be happy.
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—
In the final set of eight lines, the speaker returns to discussing the “western gate” that Luke must get to. The lines of the first stanza are reiterated with alterations. She states that it is time for him to go now. He does not have an unlimited window to make it to this unknown lover. The “winds” are tearing the vines from the gate. It is as if his chance is deteriorating.
The speaker asks that Luke trust the woman he is going to see. There is no reason for him to fear what is on the other side of the gate because she will be there. Once he goes, he will no longer feel the leaves striking him on the head and shoulders. He will be free of pain and the constant desire to take his own life.