The Witch by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge is a three stanza poem that tells a short narrative about the journey, and arrival, of a woman, widely considered to be the witch in the poem, at the house of a man whose life is changed forever when he lets her in. The poem has a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEE FGHGIJJ KLMLNOO. The pattern stays the same throughout and only the rhyming words change.
Summary of The Witch
The Witch is a short narrative poem in which the initial speaker of the poem, the witch, is describing the trial she has endured and all of the hardships she faced as she wandered around the earth. She tells the reader she is not strong in body and her “clothes are wet.” The journey has been hard on her and the reader may ask, how did she do it? This is the first clue that there is more to this woman than one might initially think. She is begging outside of a home she has never visited before, asking to be let in.
She spends the second stanza elaborating on her bad circumstances and emphasizing her maidenhood. She speaks of her cold hands and of herself as a “little maiden.” She seeks to put at rest the mind of the resident of the home.
The final stanza concludes the story and is told from the perspective of the homeowner. He has let her into his home and since then the “flame” on his hearth has gone out. He has lost something integral to his life and it was taken from him by this witch. It is clear by the last lines that it was due to his choice to let her in the home that his life was changed forever. It is not made clear what she has done or why exactly his life is so changed.
Analysis of 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!
Coleridge begins this piece by allowing her narrator, the witch in the poem, to describe herself and the journey that she has been on. This speaker tells of how she has “walked a great while,” not just on roads, but over snow, making the trek even more difficult. She has completed this task without strength or height to assist her. She has no physical power that has aided her. To add to her struggles, her “clothes are wet” and her “teeth are set.” She is downtrodden, soaked through, but determined to continue on, and so she has.
Her trek was not just “a great while” but spanned the entire “fruitful earth.” She has wandered from end to end. At this point, halfway through the first stanza, the reader might begin to wonder, if she is not physically strong, how has she managed to wander the whole earth? This is no small task, especially considering that this poem was written in Victorian times in which travel for a woman was much more unusual than it is now.
From only these few lines, the reader can infer that there is more going on with this speaker than she is revealing.
The last two lines of this stanza bring the speaker into the present. She has arrived somewhere she has yet to wander, and is pleading with the owner or resident of the home to “lift [her] over the threshold” and let her into the home.
Immediately this idea of being “lifted” into a home stands out and brings to mind legends of other mythical creatures such as vampires, that are not allowed into a home unless invited.
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!
The speaker of this piece spends the second stanza standing outside the door of the home begging to come in. She does so by describing the “cutting wind” that is blasting her as she stands there, how her hands are like “stone” and her “voice a groan.” She is expending a lot of energy in these lines to describe the distress she is in. She wants the reader and the resident of the home to know she is suffering. She is in so much pain that it is as if, “the worst of death is past.” All that is left for her now is the dying part. With the extra knowledge that the reader has of this piece, (that the speaker is a witch), these lines may also draw suspicion. She seems pitiful to an outsider though, and maybe to the homeowner.
She returns to speaking about herself and even though she suffers, she is still a “little maiden.” She proclaims to have her innocence and is in need of protection. In the last line before the refrain she speaks of her sore “little white feet.” She is infantilizing herself in an effort to convince whomever is on the other side of the door to let her in. She hopes they will see her as harmless and worth helping.
Her voice was the voice that women have,
Who plead for their heart’s desire.
She came—she came—and the quivering flame
Sunk 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.
The final stanza of this piece is told by the resident of the home. He is mentally returning to that moment and recalling what it was like before, during, and right after he let her into his home.
He describes her in the first line just as she was hoping he’d see her, as simple and in need. Her voice is described as being like that of a woman, “plead[ing] for [her] heart’s desire. It is clear that when this new speaker first heard her voice he was moved by it, so much so that he decided to open the door and let her in.
When the witch enters the house, she truly enters. He reiterates this line for emphasis to show what a monumental moment this was for him. After she was in the house, “the quivering flame / Sunk and died in the fire.” This flame that she puts out with her presence can be taken to mean the passion, meaning, goodness, or power in this new speaker’s life. It is clear he retains his physical life as he tells this story, but he loses something integral to his existence. Once this fire was out, it was never lit again “on my hearth.” This could mean in this particular home, or on the hearth of his life.
The poem concludes as this speaker finishes his short tale. He says that all this has happened and his life has changed so much for the worse, because he “lift[ed] her over the threshold, and let her in at the door.”
It is unclear in this piece how the witch damaged him so intensely. It could be that she destroyed something or someone very important to him, or took his life under her control. Coleridge leaves these details up to the imagination of the reader lending an even greater air of mystery to the piece.
About Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
Mary Elizabeth Coleridge was born in London in 1861 into an intensely literary and artistic environment. She was the daughter of parents (with whom she would live her entire life) that were gifted in music, and the great-grand-niece of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for his works, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan, Or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment.” Not only were her direct relatives all artistically inclined, her home was often the meeting place for writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin and Robert Browning.
Her first recorded poem was completed when she was only thirteen and by the time she was nineteen she had traveled throughout Europe and had discovered a gift for learning languages; becoming well versed in Hebrew, German, Italian and French, and later, Greek and Latin.
Her first book of poetry, Fancy’s Following, was published in 1896 in a limited edition, under the name “Anodos.” This book followed the publication of her first novel, The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, in 1893. During her lifetime Coleridge’s novels sold in greater number than did her books of poetry. These novels would include, The King with Two Faces and The Lady on the Drawingroom Floor which was printed five times in one year.
Coleridge taught young women until her death and was much loved by her students. After her death in 1907, Henry Newbolt, an English historian and poet, published some two hundred and thirty-seven poems under Coleridge’s real name, doing away with the pseudonym for good.