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For the second explication in my Seminar of Language and Literature, I chose to explicate E. A. Robinson’s poem “Luke Havergal”. Edwin Arlington Robinson was an American poet who was awarded three Pulitzer Prizes for his excellent literature. Robinson had a troubling childhood and a bitter adult life. One of his brothers died of a drug overdose while another married the woman Edwin loved. Edwin’s life was fraught with loss and rejection and some of those dark themes become evident in his poetry, especially Luke Havergal.

E.A. Robinson’s poem “Luke Havergal” is a singular poem that is quite simple in style and yet brilliantly intricate when explicated. This poem expounds the idea that what one truly desires can only be obtained beyond the grave. Specifically, this poem presents the situation wherein Luke Havergal, the subject and addressee of the poem, is told by someone beyond the grave that death is the only path wherein he can find his true love or desire. To achieve this central purpose, the poem uses imagery, rhyme, meter, repetition, metaphor, and personification as poetic vehicles.

Imagery is the strongest literary device in the work and therefore of the most importance. Imagery as a whole in this poem is used to envelop the reader in the aura of the work. The imagery of falling leaves, autumn, the color red, sunsets, and more importantly the grave give one the connotation that this poem is filled with deathly or decaying imagery. The images of autumn, falling leaves, and decaying flora come from lines two, four, and five:

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 the western gate, Luke Havergal—

Luke Havergal.

This imagery is also found in stanza four and specifically in lines twenty-six and twenty-seven: “here are the crimson leaves upon the wall. /Go, for the winds are tearing them away.” Such imagery gives the reader the idea of death and time slipping away. Such thoughts enhance the meaning of the poem since its subject is death and the grave. The color red, another form of imagery, has many different faces in this poem. The adjective “crimson” is the most blatant and can be found on lines two and twenty-six. But the image of red can even be found or sensed by the reader in lines ten, fourteen and nineteen through the descriptors “fiery night,” “hell,” and “flames.” The color Red and the words associated with it do not give the reader pleasant thoughts; it connotes fire, burning, and especially the idea of Hell. Such images also assist the central purpose by invoking the reader to be thinking of the poem’s subject matter: death. The imagery of sunsets also bears a deathly undertone since one’s life can be compared to the sun rising and setting. Such sunset imagery can be found in lines one, three, seven, eleven, twenty-five, and thirty-one with words like “western gate,” “twilight,” and “western glooms.” The western gate imagery is very powerful imagery since it is loaded with metaphor and is repeated many times throughout the poem. But metaphor and repetition will be discussed later. The last form of imagery in the poem is that of the grave or death itself. Although only mentioned in stanza three, this powerful image sets up the speaker of the poem as well as continuing the theme of death and decay. The speaker of the poem states that it has come, “Out of a grave…to tell you this” (line 17). The fact that the speaker of the poem is from beyond the grave should send chills up one’s spine and invoke a sense of fear. This poem is quite serious and that helps in establishing its main purpose.

Metaphor is also used in the poem to elaborate the central purpose and is closely tied to imagery. In fact, many of the devices used in this poem are interrelated and point toward each other. There are essentially two metaphors used in the poem although they are manifested in four different phrases.  The words “western gate” are mentioned four times in this poem both in the first and last stanzas. These words along with “western gloom” represent the idea of death and the portal from life unto death (11). Think of the imagery of the sun’s rising and setting as a large metaphor for a man’s life. His dawn or sunrise is synonymous with his birth and his sunset is his death. This metaphor is employed throughout the poem, especially in the aforementioned words, to illustrate the point that Luke Havergal must go beyond the grave (die) to find his desire. Additionally, death is described metaphorically in the poem by the word “twilight” which is mentioned only once (3). Twilight is the other metaphor which is synonymous with “western gate”; it also represents the passageway of death. Twilight is that stage of the day when the sun dips just below the horizon to where there is still a pale glimpse of light. Therefore, in this poem, twilight represents the immediate threshold of death. This compliments the central theme by emphasizing the point even more that Luke Havergal must die in order to fulfill his desire. These metaphors for death are contrasted by the phrase “dawn in eastern skies” which represents birth or even an awakening of desire (9, 15, and 16). This goes back to the larger metaphor illustrated earlier in regards to life being represented by the rising and setting of the sun. In this poem the phrase “dawn in eastern skies” is used as a sort of antagonist to show Luke Havergal that the polar opposite of death cannot begin to “rift the fiery night that’s in your eyes” (truly satisfy his desire) (10). Such a metaphor compliments the central purpose by illustrating that there are two forces pulling at Luke Havergal; one says death is the only way to fulfilling your desire and the other says that he must live to gratify his love. The metaphors in this poem continue to unfold the wonderful mysteries found in this poem. There is more to this poem than meets the eye.

Rhyme and meter are also important to analyze in regards to this poem. The rhyme scheme in the poem is very reliable and consistent being made of eight lines which rhyme in an aabbaaaa, ccddcccc pattern. This is illustrated below using the first and second stanzas:

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.

This aids the poem as a whole by making it easier to read as well as creating a serious mood underlined by the heavy rhyme scheme and dark imagery. The heavy rhymes throw a twist into the meter of the poem. The poem’s meter is incredibly interesting. The first words of some of the lines (“Go” and “But” especially) make the poem seem trochaic but they only work for those particular lines and not the rest of the poem (1, 6, 7). However, iambic pentameter can be forced on the lines and it actually does fit quite nicely despite the tone of some first words. The meter is illustrated thus:

ᵕ    /    ᵕ    /    ᵕ          /       ᵕ       /      ᵕ /

Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal,

ᵕ         /           ᵕ     /       ᵕ       /     ᵕ     /       ᵕ     /

There where the vines cling crimson on the wall,

ᵕ       /   ᵕ     /    ᵕ        /     ᵕ        /     ᵕ     /

And in the twilight wait for what will come.

ᵕ      /           ᵕ      /    ᵕ       /      ᵕ   /       ᵕ     /

The leaves will whisper there of her, and some,

ᵕ      /  ᵕ         /         ᵕ       /       ᵕ     /    ᵕ       /

Like flying words, will strike you as they fall;

ᵕ      /      ᵕ   /    ᵕ     /   ᵕ       /     ᵕ    /

But go, and if you listen she will call.

ᵕ     /   ᵕ     /   ᵕ          /     ᵕ       /     ᵕ  /

Go to the western gate, Luke Havergal—

ᵕ         /     ᵕ  /

Luke Havergal

(Stanza 1).

The iambic pentameter continues throughout the poem until one gets to the eighth line in each stanza. There it becomes iambic dimeter. As one reads this poem, it tends to read in somewhat of a sing song tone which seems rather odd for such a somber poem. But nonetheless it is so, due to the heavy end rhymes and the combination of the repeated phrases at the end of the stanzas. The repeated words of each stanza make up an iambic tetrameter line which instigates the sing song tone. As mentioned before, it is quite strange for a sobering poem to have a sing song tone to it. This tone adds an ironic flavor to the poem which cannot be seen in any other device in the poem. This adds to the complexity of the poem. Although there is a sing song tone implied in the poem, the iambic pentameter suggests that the poem’s content and purpose is really quite serious and not something to be laughed about.

In context to the general form and meter of the lines, repetition is another device used in the poem. Each stanza has the pattern of a phrase from the first line being repeated twice in the last lines of that stanza i.e. “Luke Havergal,” “dawn in eastern skies,” and “to tell you this” (1, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 17, 23, 24, 25, 35, and 36). The words “Luke Havergal” are repeated six times in the poem with a triplet found in stanza one and four. This repeated name is used to emphasize who this poem is intended for and also displays a sort of urgency and importance in the call. Moreover, other words are repeated several times especially “western gate” found in stanzas one and four. This phrase emphasizes that Luke Havergal must pass through this gate in order to gratify his desire. Through the repeated words the speaker seems to be implying that Luke Havergal cannot get away from his appointed task; he must do it.

Personification is another device used to illustrate the central purpose of the poem and it ties in with imagery and metaphor as well. First of all, there is natural imagery which is personified. In line two, vines are described as “cling[ing] crimson on the wall.” This description is one that invokes a feeling of life in the reader. Consider a description “like gray block of concrete” and how unfeeling it seems. The description of the vines in this poem gives animation to the vines even though they are dying. They are identified as being “crimson” which denotes that autumn is approaching and they are dying. However the verb “cling” implies that they are still alive and holding on to the wall as if for dear life since their life is coming to a close. “Leaves” are also personified in this poem in the context of the wind. They are described as “whisper[ing] there of her” and “some Like flying words, will strike you as they fall” (3-4). Leaves never whisper but the wind which flows through them and rattles and shakes them may make the sound of supposed whispering. They are described in stanza four as being able to speak “dead words.” Furthermore, they are described as being violent and animate with the propensity to hit you (4). This awakens vivid imagery in the reader and also reminds him of the overhanging theme that death is nearing and things are becoming violent or animate just before they die. Additionally, there is the personification of dead things actually being alive. This can be found primarily in stanza three when the speaker of the poem, who comes from “out of a grave,” speaks to Luke Havergal (17-18). Such a thing would never actually happen and therefore suggest personification. This now animate dead person illustrates the purpose by actually commanding Luke Havergal to go beyond the grave to find his love. It also brings another onset of somber deathly imagery and thought to the reader.

This poem is truly an amazing work of literary art. Although fairly simple and straightforward on the outset, this poem is crammed full of devices woven like a tapestry to bring much more meaning, depth, and intensity to the central purpose. Luke Havergal, being mentioned by name six times in the poem, is forced by a certain character to accept the proposition that he must die in order to go where “she” is (20-21). This speaker comes from “out of a grave” implying that he or it is wiser than Luke Havergal and that he is “blinded” to the true path (17, 20). Though it is a bitter path, it must be traveled (22). The devices in the poem make the central purpose all the more dark and hopeless, as if it were the only way to find his true love. The poem is quite somber and filled with beautiful crafty imagery and metric irony, making it the best way to describe this dilemma of finding a true desire beyond the grave.

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