“Luke Havergal” is an address to a lovelorn man, spoken by a seductive voice from beyond the grave to encourage him to rejoin a dead lover by taking his own life. He is told that he may find her through suicide. Although the poem might appear to display a faith in life after death, the intense desolation of his experience points, rather, to an expression of longing for death and an inability to endure more life in such grief-stricken loneliness.
Readers coming to terms with the poem should have in mind the famous classical tale of Aeneas’s walk into Hades, led by the Sibyl at Cumae (who communicated prophecies on torn leaves blown into the wind). They were on their way to meet his former lover, the dead Queen Dido, who had committed suicide; the story appears in book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid. If Luke Havergal is reminded that sacrifice is necessary for his descent into the dark and his reunion with his beloved (“God slays Himself with every leaf that flies,/ And hell is more than half of paradise”), analogously the Roman hero Aeneas must wait until the Sibyl sacrifices to the goddess of the night for his entrance into the underworld where his suicidal lover Dido passes her melancholy existence.
What follows is a paraphrase of pertinent passages from book 2 of the Aeneid for comparison with “Luke Havergal.” Aeneas had been told by the prophet Helenus to seek, upon his arrival at Italy, the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae, a woman of deep wisdom, who could foretell the future and give Aeneas proper advice for founding the great Roman empire. Aeneas found her, and she warned him that the descent to the underworld was easy but that the return was perilous. Aenas and the Sibyl found themselves in the Fields of Mourning, where unhappy lovers dwelled who had been driven to suicide. There Aeneas caught sight of Dido and, weeping, addressed her: “Was I the cause of your death? I left you against my will.” She, like a piece of marble, was silent and averted her gaze. He was shaken and wept long after he lost sight of her.
“Luke Havergal” is a lyric poem consisting of four stanzas whose prevailing meter is iambic pentameter with variations. The eighth line of each stanza is an iambic dimeter beat echoing the sound and sense of the previous line in its closing words (“In eastern skies,” “To tell you this,” “Luke Havergal”).
Of particular interest in each eight-line stanza is the unusual and intricate rhyme scheme (aabbaaaa), which repeats final sounds so as to convey a powerfully cumulative insistence in the voice’s seduction of poor Luke Havergal. This repetition of final sounds combines with the repetitious last two lines of each stanza to provide Luke with an almost unavoidable compulsion to commit a romantic suicide.
The images and allusions all stress darkness and death—the destination and terrible outcome of Luke Havergal’s romantic desolation and desperation. In contrast to the rising sun of “eastern skies” is Luke’s wild “twilight” time for a walk to the gloomy “western gate” of the setting sun, under which vines bloom to a terminal blood-red ripeness and where leaves fall like fleeting and fading words that are ultimately indecipherable. Luke’s eyes are fiery red, and his forehead is flushed crimson. It provides him with an unnatural light for his way into the dark on his topsy-turvy pilgrimage into hell, activated by his misplaced fidelity to the memory of his beloved dead lady. Like a God who slays Himself—possibly like a Christ-Creator who allows Himself to be crucified—Luke finds himself tempted to harrow hell, through suicide, in an attempt to recover the object of his desire.
Most important, this suicidal pilgrimage may well be Robinson’s modern version of the classical journey into Hades by a Roman hero such as Aeneas. Aeneas was similarly drawn into a dark rendezvous with his dead lover, Queen Dido, under the guidance of the Sibyl, the Roman prophetess at Cumae in Vergil’s great epic poem, the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). In fact, the ruling motif of Robinson’s entire poem seems to be this classical allusion to the Sibyl at Cumae by the gates of Hades. The motif of the Vergilian journey into Hades acts as an implicit underlying contrast for the desperate romantic plight of a modern antihero, Luke Havergal.