illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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What is an analysis of the quote: "witchcraft was hung in history, but history and I find all the witchcraft that we need around us, everyday?"

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This very short poem by Emily Dickinson, numbered 1583, is an example of Dickinson's use of ambiguity and understatement. The assertion that "witchcraft was hung in History" probably refers to the Salem witch trials and other incidents in New England that sought to stamp out evil works of the devil by hanging or drowning those judged to be practitioners of witchcraft. One could paraphrase this clause as meaning both "witchcraft was historically punished by death" and "in the past, people tried to wipe out witchcraft." This part of the poem is relatively straightforward.

The remaining statement can be variously interpreted. The subject of the clause "History and I" can be interpreted to mean that the following predicate applies to both historical and current events. The rest of the clause says that "all the Witchcraft that we need" is "around us, every Day." One interpretation is that evil, represented by "Witchcraft," exists in a variety of forms and is as ubiquitous now as it was in the past. Such evil can exist in the petty judgments of local gossips and in the predatory and dishonest business practices of local merchants and large business interests. This interpretation is a cynical view of society, implying that no matter what extremes a culture takes to root out the obvious forms of wickedness, the underlying propensity of mankind for evil persists.

It is also possible to view "Witchcraft" in a positive light as representing magic in a romantic or poetic perspective. With such a reading, this poem would be saying that magical delights surround us every day. Given Dickinson's upbringing in a staunchly religious family and community, though, it seems unlikely that she would use the term "witchcraft" in a positive sense. The sardonic tone that infuses much of Dickinson's verse seems to apply here. She is most likely asserting that evil has not yet been stamped out, despite the historical attempts that have been conducted to do so.

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In Emily Dickinson's poem (titled by the first line of the poem given many of her poems were untitled and publishers needed a way to "name" them after her death) "Witchcraft was hung in history" allows a reader to see the importance of two very different ideas.

First, Dickinson is referring to the fact that witchcraft has a place in history which many are familiar with. Given the tumultuous history in England and America with the witch hysteria, Dickinson is referring to the fact that people still speak of the fact that the trials of many people and the deaths of many more was so tragic that "our" history has been hung much like the many people who were hung based upon their accusations and guilty verdicts regarding their being witches.

Second, Dickinson recognizes the fact that even though witchcraft has been hung in history, it is still relevant for her and "us." Given that Dickinson was a Romantic poet, her poetry was riddled with images of nature and imagination. Here, Dickinson admits that for people to live they need to accept and recognize that "we" all need a little magic and mysticism in "our" lives.

Therefore, Dickinson is simply stating that witchcraft has not remained upon the wall. Instead, it exists around all of us, if we look for it or not. It, witchcraft, no longer holds the taboos it did in the past. It can be brought down off the wall.

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Emily Dickinson's poetry often communicates layers of meaning and subtext beneath the simple lines of verse. What she is referring to in the first line, that witchcraft was "hung in history," is the European and North American witch trials that occurred over the course of several hundred years. These trials and the accompanying cultural upheaval are seen to have been caused by pervasive suspicion and sexist attitudes towards women. Dickinson, herself a feminist, albeit a circumspect and solitary one, is referring to "all the witchcraft she needs around her every day", i.e. the magic or mystery in everyday life that is a direct result of her identity as a woman. She is not literally referring to witchcraft, but to the kinds of things thought of as witchcraft during the witchcraze days, like intuition, love of nature, belief in coincidence and fate.

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