Word Cloud: WITCH

by NONA BLYTH CLOUD

Witch . . .

There’s a long and often tragic history attached to that word. In our enlightened 21st century Western culture, it’s more likely to be used as a somewhat more polite euphemism for that rhyming ‘B’ word.

Which is strange, when you think about it. It’s more polite to call a woman a name that, not so far back in our history, would have caused her to be hanged, drowned or burnt at the stake, than a word designating a female dog?

A large part of today’s popular appeal of mythical figures like vampires, werewolves, witches, and assorted other “things that go bump in the night” in books and movies, and on television, must surely come from their perceived power. Eternal life, shape-shifting, and spell-casting are enviable traits to people enthralled in a daily grind of never-ending projects and arbitrary deadlines. We all want a little magic in our lives.

Many poems have been written about witches. With Halloween only a bit more than a week away, I’ve gathered several of them here. So curl up by a fireside, or under the bedclothes, and let a shiver creep up your spine. Then again, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of someone you know, or even yourself.

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William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was first performed in 1606, over four hundred years ago, but his three scary witches still hold audiences spellbound. As he warns us:

By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
– Macbeth, Act IV, scene 1


SONG OF THE WITCHES:
“Double, double toil and trouble”

(from Macbeth Act IV, scene 1)

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.
Cool it with a baboon’s blood,
Then the charm is firm and good.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

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The Grimm’s fairytale “Hansel and Gretel” has been deliciously scaring children ever since the Brothers Grimm first published it in 1812, but I have a couple of questions about it: Why are Gingerbread Houses a Christmas tradition instead of Halloween? And what does the Witch think? Well, this poem by Ava Leavell Haymon supplies an answer to my second question.

The Witch Has Told You a Story

You are food.
You are here for me
to eat. Fatten up,
and I will like you better.

Your brother will be first,
you must wait your turn.
Feed him yourself, you will
learn to do it. You will take him

eggs with yellow sauce, muffins
torn apart and leaking butter, fried meats
late in the morning, and always sweets
in a sticky parade from the kitchen.

His vigilance, an ice pick of   hunger
pricking his insides, will melt
in the unctuous cream fillings.
He will forget. He will thank you

for it. His little finger stuck every day
through cracks in the bars
will grow sleek and round,
his hollow face swell

like the moon. He will stop dreaming
about fear in the woods without food.
He will lean toward the maw
of   the oven as it opens

every afternoon, sighing
better and better smells.

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Mary Coleridge gives us this poem of a common male fantasy about Witches, that they have the power to ensnare an unwary man, and possess him.

The Witch

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.

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Sylvia Plath applies her vivid imagination to the ultimate fate of thousands of women over the centuries accused of witchcraft.

Witch Burning

In the marketplace they are piling the dry sticks.
A thicket of shadows is a poor coat. I inhabit
The wax image of myself, a doll’s body.
Sickness begins here: I am the dartboard for witches.
Only the devil can eat the devil out.
In the month of red leaves I climb to a bed of fire.

It is easy to blame the dark: the mouth of a door,
The cellar’s belly. They’ve blown my sparkler out.
A black-sharded lady keeps me in parrot cage.
What large eyes the dead have!
I am intimate with a hairy spirit.
Smoke wheels from the beak of this empty jar.

If I am a little one, I can do no harm.
If I don’t move about, I’ll knock nothing over. So I said,
Sitting under a potlid, tiny and inert as a rice grain.
They are turning the burners up, ring after ring.
We are full of starch, my small white fellows. We grow.
It hurts at first. The red tongues will teach the truth.

Mother of beetles, only unclench your hand:
I’ll fly through the candle’s mouth like a singeless moth.
Give me back my shape. I am ready to construe the days
I coupled with dust in the shadow of a stone.
My ankles brighten. Brightness ascends my thighs.
I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light.

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Susan Ludvigson spins a timeless poem out of an old legend.

After He Called Her a Witch

Special powers were attributed to the orange in
Renaissance England, Italy and Sicily. It was
believed witches could bring death to an enemy
by pinning the victim’s name to an orange and
leaving the orange in the chimney.

When he comes in, late again,
the whole house smells wonderful,
but he can’t quite recognize the scent.
The fire is almost out, a few ashes
flicker in the absent light,
and suddenly he recalls
his mother holding orange peels
over a flame, the singed skin
curling back like petals,
releasing the fragrance.
She did it daily, all one winter,
just for the pleasure.

He doesn’t see on the hearth
the remains of paper, traces
of his name printed in clear
black ink. He wonders how his wife
knew about sweetening their rooms
with oranges, wonders whether it means
the air is cleared,
she wants to make up.
He breathes the evening in,
Imagining her in bed, waiting for him,
forgiveness on her lips
like the taste of oranges.

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One of the more benevolent names for a Witch was Wisewoman, given to women who had extensive knowledge about medicinal herbs, and often worked as healers and midwives. By the early 20th century, more and more of these women had been supplanted by men of the medical profession, and Witch was becoming one of the numerous derogatory words for the “New Women” who wanted the vote, financial independence and no unplanned pregnancies. Adam Kirsch’s poem, inspired by the painting below, is a look inside the ugly hag that has become the standard image of this kind of Witch. Many women today fear old age, but some embrace it.

The Woman of Progressive Intellect, 1914

If it were not for her enlightened eyes,
She’d be the witch that intellect denies
Has ever walked the earth: the sunken jaw,
The blunt chin like a claw-toothed hammer’s claw,
The stubbed and crooking finger, and the skin
As stained and crinkly as her crinoline,
Would make a loving grandchild run away.
It takes another kind of love to see
How spirit, in its tactical withdrawal
From aging outworks that are doomed to fall,
Consents to the bewitching of its shell
As long as it can hold the citadel
Where the progressive intellect has spent
A lifetime plotting the enlightenment
The backward and the beautiful dismiss
As mind’s revenge for its unloveliness.

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Edna St. Vincent Millay gives us a poem in the voice of a man obsessed with a woman who outwardly conforms to the role of wife, but will never be his possession.

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she never will be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ‘tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she never will be all mine.

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In this poem, Anne Sexton claims kinship with Witches through the centuries, a sisterhood who could never fit themselves into traditional “women’s roles.”

Her Kind

I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.

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The faces of Witches are many, both ancient and remodeled for modern times, and lore about them is vast, varied and contradictory. The only certain thing about Witches? Our fascination with them is unlikely to end anytime soon.

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POETS

  • William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English playwright. poet and actor; widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist; often called England’s national poet and “the Bard of Avon”
  • The Brothers Grimm, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm 1786-1859), German philologists, cultural researchers, lexicographers and authors who collected and published folklore and folktales
  • Mary Coleridge (1861-1907) English novelist, essayist and poet; noted linguist who studied German, French, Italian, Hebrew, Greek and Latin; used ‘Anodos’ and M.E. Coleridge as pen-names
  • Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) American poet and novelist; best known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, but recognized by many critics for her poetry; committed suicide after a long struggle with deep depression
  • Susan Ludvigson (1942- ) American poet, professor emeritus of English at Winthrop University SC, author of ten collections of poetry, including Trinity (1996) and Escaping the House of Certainty (2006)
  • Adam Kirsch (1976- ) American poet and literary critic, with three collections of poetry, including Invasions: New Poems, 2008
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) outstanding American poet, also playwright and feminist; 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
  • Anne Sexton (1928 – 1974) American poet, 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; completed her last book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, just before committing suicide after years of therapy for what may have been bipolar disorder

VISUALS

  • Triple Goddess – maiden, mother and crone, from a greeting card, artist unknown
  • Witch house design for a film based on the opera Hansel und Gretel
  • Boreas, by John William Waterhouse
  • Bonfire
  • An orange on a blue background
  • Die Frau im fortgeschrittenen Intellekt – 1914,  by August Sandler
  • The Crystal Ball, by John Williams Waterhouse
  • Gathering Herbs, 1882 by Camille Pizarro

Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud

About wordcloud9

Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for the past 45 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband and a bewildered Border Collie.
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2 Responses to Word Cloud: WITCH

  1. We cannot forget Marie LaVeau of New Orleans. Unlike many witches of poem and song, Marie LaVeau was a real person, and her grave is one of the most visited tourist sites in NOLA. More people became aware of Marie LaVeau when country-folk singer Bobby Bare recorded a humorous novelty song about her in 1974. The song was a #1 hit, receiving air play around the world.

    Here is her story from a History Channel documentary:

    This is the song by Bobby Bare:

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