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.)