‘The Witch’s Life’ is a confessional poem by the writer Anne Sexton. The poem is made of two stanzas and the first of which is only nine lines and is focused on a memory from childhood. Thereafter, the second stanza is much longer at twenty-six lines and focuses on the process of aging and understanding life. This poem is written in free verse, meaning there is no rhyme scheme and the lines range in length from one word to thirteen.
The first person narrator of this poem recalls a memory from the childhood of an old woman that the children in the neighborhood referred to as “the Witch.” She comes to understand as she ages that she has become this woman and treated the woman from her youth unfairly. Not understanding at the time that she would become just like her. The speaker describes throughout the second stanza how she has become a hermit, just like the witch, and lives only with her overwhelming memories. Concluding that even though life may just be a “dream within a dream” she will continue to “[hold] [the] basket of fire,” and live on as best she can.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Witch’s Life
When I was a child
from behind the wrinkled curtains
‘The Witch’s Life’ by Anne Sexton begins with the introduction of a first-person narrator describing her childhood and particularly poignant memory of one of her neighbors.
This neighbor is said to be “…an old woman…whom we called The Witch.” The speaker goes on to describe the actions of this woman. How day in and day out she would watch the street from her “second story/ window.” The curtains that she would peer out from are described as being “wrinkled,” a clue to her life within the home. It is easy to imagine the interior of the house from only this one detail, dusty furniture, old furnishing, these images are simple to conjure.
and sometimes she would open the window
and a voice like a boulder.
The narrator describes how sometimes this woman would open up the window and yell out to the children, or those passing by saying, “Get out of my life!” This woman sees those that are simply going about their own lives as somehow intruding on her own. She feels they are a nuisance and out of line coming anywhere near her house.
The narrator now gives a brief physical depiction of the woman. According to her, “She had hair like kelp/ and a voice like a boulder.” The choice to describe the woman’s hair as kelp-like (a type of seaweed) is an interesting one. It gives her an air of otherworldliness. Her hair would probably be long and stringy, sway back and forth like kelp in the ocean.
Moreover, her voice is described as a boulder. It is heavy, falling from the house and striking the ground, probably shocking those who did not know she was there. It also has a power to it, a strength that would cause someone to stop and listen.
I think of her sometimes now
curl up individually like toes.
The speaker continues her narration at the beginning of the much longer, second stanza. stating that she, “…think[s] of her sometimes now/ and wonder if I am becoming her.” These two lines are slightly surprising after the above depiction. It makes the reader question what has happened to this woman that she is becoming, or thinks she’s becoming, this witch.
It becomes clear throughout this stanza that it is solely the process of aging that has turned her into this woman she knew as a child. At this point in ‘The Witch’s Life’, the narrator goes through personal physical changes she sees happening to her that have led her to this conclusion.
Her shoes have changed, they “turn up like a jester’s.” Meaning, the tips appear to have become elongated, probably hard to walk in. These make her feel uncomfortable in her own skin and she is perhaps having a hard time getting around. She also describes her hair as curling up “individually like toes.” Her hair is changing, as she ages, its texture and nature are changing too. It is becoming hard to deal with and is beginning to mirror the hair of the “witch.”
I am shoveling the children out,
those who reach into my veins.
She has raised her children, and she has shoveled them out of the house, “scoop after scoop.” This depiction is an interesting one, shoveling is not an easy task, but is made to seem so in this oversimplification of the process of raising children. This means that the speaker has not found satisfaction in the act she believed she would. It has become mundane and repetitive like digging a hole.
The only thing that she finds satisfaction in is with her books, which she says “anoint” her. They are so important to the speaker they have taken on a religious connotation.
Moreover, she has only a few friends left, the ones that “reach into [her] veins.” These are the friends that truly know her, and see her for who she is. They have become a part of her.
Maybe I am becoming a hermit,
opening the door for only
Maybe I have plugged up my sockets
to keep the gods in?
She now questions her life, “Maybe I am becoming a hermit,/ opening the door for only/ a few special animals?” Therefore, she sees herself as becoming the witch from her childhood, someone who subsists on their interior life and does not seek companionship outside of their home. Besides, she describes her skull, or brain, as becoming “too crowded.” Her thoughts overwhelm her. She has seen and lived through much and remembering it all makes it seem as if there is no room for anything soothing or simple, like soup.
Moreover, she says that maybe she has “plugged” up her sockets to “keep the gods in.” In this way, she has quarantined herself within herself to keep a hold of all of the important memories of her life. She lets no one in and risks nothing.
Maybe, although my heart
is a kitten of butter,
then sitting here
holding a basket of fire.
She continues, recalling her heart as having been warm like butter, but now she has blown it up. Filled it like a zeppelin until it has become an encumbrance.
‘The Witch’s Life’ concludes with the narrator deciding that, yes this is the life of a witch. She is “climbing the primordial climb,” moving from birth to death just like everyone else. It was similar to the woman from her childhood. All meaning memory of life is “a dream within a dream.” Here, the poet alludes to a poem by Edgar Allen Poe in which all of existence is a fantasy. But still, she exists and attempts to find meaning in her life. It’s a dangerous task, like holding a basket of fire.
About Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton was born and raised in Massachusetts. She had an unhappy childhood that is now rumored to have been abusive. Sexton would eventually marry and become a fashion model. She gave birth in 1953 and 1955, suffering from postpartum depression. Therefore, she had to be admitted to a neuropsychiatric hospital. After encouragement from her therapist, she started keeping a journal and in it, she developed her writing style and passion. She wrote about her psychiatric struggles and her first book, To Bedlam and Part Way Back was published in 1960. Sexton’s poetry were extremely popular during her lifetime. She was the recipient of awards such as the Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, Shelley Memorial Prize. Moreover, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She struggled with depression throughout her life and committed suicide at the age of 46.