Can you please help analyze "The Witch" by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's poem, entitled "The Witch," focuses on the wish to achieve acceptance as seen in the line, "lift me over the threshold, and let me in at the door," which is used twice in the poem. Based on research, the wish of the "exile to be allowed to enter, to cross the threshold" is not an uncommon theme in Coleridge's poetry. In "The Witch", the figure is permitted to cross, and it..."disrupts or irrevocably transforms its new surroundings."

It is felt that Mary Coleridge's poetry is directed at that of her great-great uncle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. A poem at the center of Mary's "The Witch" is S.T. Coleridge's "Christabel," written about one hundred years before Mary's poem. The theme of "entering in" or "breaking through" is exhibited by Mary's poem and besides the content of Mary's verse, it has used Coleridge's "Christabel" to become a part of Mary's poem.

Though based on research, and comparing the Coleridge authors' work, without background, the poem can stand alone; and since poetry speaks differently to each reader, "The Witch" can have a variety of understandings attached to it.

For my part, the title speaks to me before the verse. The witch may be the woman who enters into the home, or the woman who welcomes the traveler.

The sensory details lead me to believe that the woman walking ("the maiden") is alive as she walks: traveling over snow—"neither tall or strong"—but her clothes are wet, and she may be clenching her jaw with the cold. It has been a hard trip, but I don't think "fruitful earth" refers to the present as there is snow on the ground; perhaps it refers to the journey that has lasted so long while she has traversed the world, sometimes fruitful—in spring—to arrive at this moment. She has never been to this home, but pleads to be picked up and carried inside.

The weather is described in the next stanza: the wind is biting cold and the speaker cannot stand it—her hands may feel like stones because they are cold (perhaps numb) and she can barely speak but only make sounds ("groans"). "...the worst of death is past" may refer to those who have died around her, OR may simply mean she is past fearing death because she is so battered by her trip.

In the brief stanza that follows, she says she is "a little maiden still," which could refer to youth, or might refer to her size and the fact that she has never slept with a man, which "maiden" could infer. Again she begs to be lifted and brought inside.

For the final stanza, the first person point of view changes to third. The story takes on, perhaps, elements of the supernatural (a common theme in Coleridge's poems). The new speaker describes the woman at the door as one with a voice common to women who "plead for their heart's desire." To me, it seems that the woman of the house rushes to lift her and let her inside, while at the same time, the spirit of the woman—even a vision at the door—enters and puts out the fire. My first impression is that she goes into the fire, douses the "quivering" flame, sinks and dies there. Another alternative may be that she literally comes into the house and the woman welcoming her dies, never to light a fire in her hearth again.

Having read Samuel Coleridge's poem "Christabel," there is a parallel between Christabel finding Geraldine and trying to help her, though Geraldine seems already dead. It's possible this poem does mimic the structure of the earlier one. If so, the maiden is the witch.

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