I’m not sure why it never occurred to me to analyze poetry on this blog, especially since one famous Edgar Allen Poe made macabre poetry so popular. (By the way, stay tuned for an examination of some Poe poems to come this summer). Still, I held fast to films, with the occasional graphic novel, short story review, or miscellaneous essay. Then, one fateful Wednesday evening during my second semester of PhD course work, my Victorian literature professor assigned a thick chunk of lesser-known female poetry from the Victorian Era to read. There is, to be sure, an entire world of often unacknowledged brilliance in my Victorian Women Poets anthology, but one work, about the depths of evil shrouded in complete innocence, struck me as particularly apropos for this blog. We have Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, great grand-niece of renowned Romantic-era poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to thank for this subtle work of unnerving literature, an 1896 poem entitled “The Witch.”
I’m sure once I start typing I’ll have much to say about this poem, but before I give my input, just read this and appreciate how elegantly it scares its audience:
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
I have walked a great while over the snow,
And I am not tall nor strong.
My clothes are wet, and my teeth are set,
And the way was hard and long.
I have wandered over the fruitful earth,
But I never came here before.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
The cutting wind is a cruel foe.
I dare not stand in the blast.
My hands are stone, and my voice a groan,
And the worst of death is past.
I am but a little maiden still,
My little white feet are sore.
Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!
Her voice was the voice that women have,
Who plead for their heart’s desire.
She came – she came – and the quivering flame
Sank and died in the fire.
It never was lit again on my hearth
Since I hurried across the floor,
To lift her over the threshold, and let her in at the door.
I will admit, I’ve been meaning to write about this poem since the beginning of the semester when I encountered it. The semester is over now, and I feel I’ve let it sit long enough. Sometimes, when I read or have a movie, I get – what feels to me – like a sort of flash of insight, and I know exactly what I want to say about the work. Though I love this poem, I haven’t experienced that flash of insight, which is part of what kept me from writing about it for so long. But, I think it’s time to give Mary Elizabeth Coleridge her due credit, and look at what she’s doing with this interesting piece.
I thought some context would help to start the discussion. I did a little google search on witches in the Victorian era and found a site called Victorian-era.org that calls itself Victorian Era information for kids but seems oddly geared toward an older audience despite that assertion. Note that the Victorian Era started in the 1830’s and lasted until about 1900, so Mary Elizabeth Coleridge wrote this poem at the tail end of England’s Victorian period. Of course, a reliance on science and empirical data – perpetuated in part by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution – and the rise of industrialism characterized this chunk of time to a significant degree. What is lesser known (or was to me before my google search) was that a rise in the interest of the supernatural also occurred during this period. Ghosts and ghost stories were extremely popular, along with fads that are still current like seances and mediums (and anyone who appreciates Showtime’s now defunct Penny Dreadful can appreciate the popularity of spirituality and seances in Victorian England).
Though Victorians had some notion of the stereotypical woman who rides a broom at night, Victorian-era.org suggests that popular notions of “the witch” were fading by this time (again, in place of an interest in ghosts, mediums, and the like). By the 1700’s, typical assumptions regarding witches – for example, that they caused illnesses, that witchcraft in general was powerful and dangerous – were diminishing. Given this information, Coleridge, who wrote at the end of the 1800’s, could be doing two things: first, she could be offering a sort of homage to antiquated British lore, or, second (and these two options are not mutually exclusive) she could be talking about more than simply witchcraft when she writes about the evil that hides in the body of an innocent maiden.
The first stanza, for example, plays some interesting mind tricks with us. It foregrounds the difficulty of the maiden who is, presumably, at someone’s door, but the maiden (who is also the speaker) seems incredibly displaced. Indeed, her presence is oddly inexplicable, despite her obvious attempt to highlight her weakness and personal struggle. Why – and how – would a young woman who claims she is not “tall or strong,” travel across the earth. World travel, of course, is popular now, but I surmise it would have been unusual for a young woman to travel around the world by ship in the Victorian Era. The notion that this young woman (and I’m not sure how young she is) is a world traveler calls to mind depictions of Satan in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” Hawthorne subtly indicates that the dark presence accompanying Young Goodman Brown through the forest is Satan by alluding to how fast he can travel large distances. He thus presents Satan as a sort of clever, expedient world traveler. This seems true of our title character, as well. There is an interesting paradox in this poem: a young woman who seems unassuming and describes herself as weak has the power and desire to travel the world. The first time I read this poem, I ignored this line, but a closer inspection leads me to believe that our witch – perhaps unintentionally – reveals her link to the demonic early in the poem by talking about her worldly knowledge.
Before moving on, it’s significant to note that this poem could be perceived completely differently if given a different title, so that it wouldn’t be scary. There is no concrete reason to assume Coleridge is describing a witch; she could be describing, in a very literal sense, the presence of a woman who brings darkness (or sadness) to a home upon arriving. Only her title, “The Witch” underlines the insidious motives of our titular character, who presents herself as innocent but brings only despair to the speaker of the last stanza.
As my anthology notes, the refrain, echoed at the end of every stanza, “Oh, lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door!” alludes to the common marital practice of carrying the new bride over the threshold. Written from the standpoint of a man, this poem could be simplistically interpreted as displaying a fear of marriage and/or some innate proclivity to believe that women are inherently evil. But since this poem was written by a woman, the message – if there is a concrete message at work here – seems much more complicated. The book emphasizes the fact that the threshold denotes a “marker of a transition between two states of being” (Blain 293). This conjures, if one wants to get imaginative, the image of a frail, innocent young woman crossing a house’s threshold and morphing into a terrifying, malevolent hag. In that regard, this poem is not wholly unlike the canonical Room 237 scene in The Shining, when the attractive naked woman lures Danny, then Jack, into her condemned domain, only to morph into a disgusting, decaying old woman who lurks toward her victims and inflicts injury. There is, inherent in both of these examples, two things going on here: From a feminist perspective, we could say it’s every man’s worst fear that hiding behind a fair maiden or a beautiful naked woman is an ugly, bulky hag with cellulite and a bone-chilling cackle. But again, Coleridge is a woman, and I think this poem might speak to a more generalist human fear of either great evil lurking in that which looks harmless (on a more material level, the untraceable nature of the devil), or a fear of trusting those who seem genuine but may have a more vituperative “dark side.” We have probably, as human beings, feared evil since our origins (with a fear of Satan rising from the inception of Christianity), so it’s unsurprising that literature would reflect such fear. I hesitate to assert that any poem can express universal fears (I find that the word universal is often problematic), but it seems that this poem could just be an expression of our general fear of undetected evil.
On the note of undetected evil, the presence of evil is almost understated in this poem. A fair degree of imagination is needed to interpret the flame that “sank and died in the fire” as the presence of a sort of hellish darkness and despair. In Western culture, we’ve typically associated the “dark” with bad and the “light” with good, so Coleridge’s symbolism is evident, but I think she intentionally chooses not to depict a grotesque scene of havoc and misery. There is something oddly calm about the mental image of a dying flame, but if fire was among man’s chief creations according to Greek mythology, then the dying flame is oddly life-negating. I find it incredibly intriguing to conjecture the literal examples of darkness ensconced in Coleridge’s notion of the dying flame; the metaphor leaves open all sorts of possibilities for the imagination. And still, what is perhaps most troubling about this poem is the finality of the witch’s evil deeds. Once the speaker of the third stanza (who is not the speaker of the first two stanzas) lifts the witch over the threshold, his indiscretion is irrevocable. He laments that the flame “never was lit again on my hearth,” suggesting that he lived to talk about his despair, but sits, indelibly, in it. In Christopher Marlow’s Dr. Faustus, hell is depicted not as a place of fire and brimstone, but as a state of darkness and despair that stems from a permanent lack of connection with God. When Dr. Faustus asks Mephistopheles why he’s not in hell, Mephistopheles replies, “This is hell/nor am I out of it.” The speaker of the third stanza seems to reinforce the notion that hell is a dismal state of being situated away from the ultimate good – dismal, and permanent.
The book’s editor also makes the interesting move of noting the subtle transition between the witch as the speaker of the first two stanzas and the witch’s victim as the speaker of the third, a transition so smooth, so notably unmarked, that we may infer the witch is merely a projection of the speaker’s self. This is an especially fascinating prospect to ponder; there is a sense, if we accept that interpretation, that the speaker desperately tries to avoid temptation by not letting his or her more evil self in “the house,” but ultimately capitulates because of that evil self’s persuasiveness. The poem further hints at what I think most of us experience at some point in our lives: a fear of self. Coleridge’s poem may express the fear that we all have a “witch,” inside us, a Satan-like creature masked in innocence begging for a chance to make some decisions on our behalf. On a less grave, insidious level, the witch could stand for general human imperfection, and a fear that our flaws, our sins, or our darker natures will consume us.
There are, probably, many more possible interpretations to this poem, but it’s safe to say that in her own way, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge transforms the stuff of a short story into a concise poem, maximizing rhyme scheme and word economy to frighten us notably. Whether she is giving homage to the passing notion of the witch as a dangerous being, or making a statement about the evil that lurks in us all, she certainly leaves plenty of room for the reader’s imagination to play and gives us a bizarre scenario to consider.