The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Half-Hanged Mary” is a medium-length narrative poem in free verse that has ten sections, each containing one to five stanzas. In it, Atwood reconstructs the hanging of Mary Webster, a woman accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts in the 1680’s. Webster was hanged but did not die; thus the title of the poem.

The poem is written in the first person: Mary tells her own story. The ten sections of the poem are titled by time. The first, “7 p.m.,” tells of the hour in the evening when authorities come for Mary while she is milking the cows. Her crimes, she deduces, include living alone, owning her “weedy farm,” knowing a cure for warts, and, most of all, being a woman: having “breasts/ and a sweet pear hidden in my body.” Her specific examples show how well she understands her situation. The times are ripe for witch-hunts, and any woman a bit out of the ordinary is vulnerable. “Rumour,” she tells her reader, was “hunting for some neck to land on.”

At “8 p.m.,” the time of the second section, Mary is hanged. She describes the excitement of the men who hang her; they are excited “by their show of hate” and by “their own evil.” At “9 p.m.,” she describes the women who watch. She understands that they cannot help her, for they, too, are vulnerable just by being women. Should they choose to help or even acknowledge her, they might be the next to be accused. At “10 p.m.,” Mary addresses God. She suggests that...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Margaret Atwood’s poems are loaded with imagery, and, in “Half-Hanged Mary,” the imagery often disturbs. Atwood forces the reader into what contemporary poet Adrienne Rich calls “re-vision”: “seeing with fresh eyes” in order the break the hold of tradition. Her images grab and surprise the reader and insist upon the reader’s reassessment of expectations. Some of the images depend primarily on visual surprise. The rope is put around Mary’s neck and she is yanked skyward: “Up I go like a windfall in reverse,/ a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree.” She later compares her hanging self to “a turkey’s wattles.” Death is “like a crow/ waiting for my squeezed beet/ of a heart to burst/ so he can eat my eyes.” These similes present fresh, startling pictures that require a moment for the reader to take in.

Often, single words or simple phrases form the image. When Mary speaks of the women watching her, she uses synecdoche (the use of a part to represent the whole) to freeze the image. It is the “bonnets,” “dark skirts,” and “upturned faces” who come to stare. Her images often shock. An aborted baby is “flushed” from the mother. Mary looks down into “eyeholes/ and nostrils” from above. Atwood’s angels do not sing, but “caw.” This raw imagery pervades the poem, intruding on the reader’s sensibilities like static on the radio.

The unexpected word or combination of words creates not ambiguity...

(The entire section is 545 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Biography. Toronto, Ontario: ECW Press, 1998.

Hengen, Shannon. Margaret Atwood’s Power: Mirrors, Reflections, and Images in Select Fiction and Poetry. Toronto, Ontario: Sumach Press, 1993.

Nischik, Reingard, ed. Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Stein, Karen F. Margaret Atwood Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Wilson, Sharon, Thomas Friedman, and Shannon Hengen, eds. Approaches to Teaching Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Other Works. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1996.