Lets go deeper. An analysis of ‘Christmas Carols’ and ‘Spelling’

Yesterday in class we gave a further look into some of Margaret Atwood’s poetry. I found this extremely helpful and I’m going to share some new-found knowledge of two of these poems.


‘Spelling’ is a poem that focuses mainly on the impact of education, especially in the eyes of a female. The title is a simple way of expressing the fact that women need education – they need a voice. The whole poem is a reflection from an educated mother who’s observing her child play, it moves from a description of the scene to a more philosophical reflection. There is a strong rhythm in this poem, with sparse punctuation and lots of enjambment that emphasises certain words. There are nine stanzas of varying lengths, from one line to ten, this instability shows Atwood’s opinion that women are less stable without education.

The poem starts with the mother describing her daughter playing – the first words, “My daughter” establishes the voice of the poem, and gives the whole poem a more personal feel. Atwood describes the “plastic letters” simply, “red, blue & hard yellow”. These are primary colours which can be used to make every colour, like letters are used to make every word. The use of the ampersand (&) joins the colours together, and shows that they’re associated with each other. At the end of this stanza Atwood uses the phrase, “how to make spells” which is a direct reference to Mary Webster – a woman accused of being a witch. This highlights Atwood’s opinion that spelling, education, and reading is magical, while also referencing the persecution of women.


The next stanza leaves the scene and turns into a reflection. Atwood asks how many women “denied themselves daughters” so they could learn – referring to the fact that many women have to give up education to have children and get married. My favourite Margaret Atwood phrase is in the last line of this stanza:

“so they could mainline words”

This suggests that the women who choose education over children take in words like a drug, yet they’re not smoking it or snorting it – they’re ‘mainlining’ it – taking it straight to the bloodstream. Similarly the next stanza also highlights the fact that in some cultures you can’t have both education and children, “A child is not a poem, a poem is not a child.” A poem is abstract, a work of art, yet a child is physical, it grows up and is demanding.

Atwood then returns “to the story” – giving a snapshot of a grotesque image, about a woman “in labour, her legs tied together by the enemy so she could not give birth”. This is a true story which makes the reader feel horrified – it was a Nazi experiment on Jewish women. This could be interpreted as a metaphor for women not being allowed to speak, just like this woman was not allowed to give birth. The next image given is another reference to Mary Webster, “the burning witch”. Her mouth is “covered” by a “leather” strap to “strangle words” – another representation of the society of some cultures preventing women’s voices being heard.

The next stanza is short:

“A word after a word

after a word is power” 

This gives a very simple message – as a child learns, so does his/her outlook on the world, and his/her knowledge grows too. This could be a reference to the common idiom, ‘knowledge equals power’, and so as these women learn “word after a word” they become more powerful. The phrase could also be viewed as an excuse to be burning the witch – the people who burnt her at the stake didn’t want her ideas to continue, and didn’t want her to become more powerful.

The next stanza is the longest and is a long image, comparing the witch burning to a volcano. Atwood talks about “language” falling “away from the hot bones” – the woman’s ideas are now gone – she is dead. Atwood then graphically describes the intense heat of the fire, using language that makes us think of a volcano – “where the rock breaks open”, “at the melting point of granite”. At the end of this stanza Atwood says that “the body itself becomes a mouth” – this shows that the dead body tells a story – deterring other women from making the same ‘mistake’ of using their voice – but also the story that many people are scared of women using their voices.

Atwood then singles out one fact to be a one line stanza:

“This is a metaphor”

This is an obvious fact, though the words tie in with the idea of literacy and education, the uneducated wouldn’t know what a metaphor is and so she’s explaining it. She then asks a rhetorical question, “How do learn to spell?” and answers it immediately, “Blood, sky & the sun”. I interpreted this in two ways – you learn from your surroundings, the “sky and sun”, pointing things out and asking your family, your “blood” . She then repeats the words “your first” making it personal to the reader, talking about your first words, “your own name first” – highlighting that your name is a large part of you, and then ends with “your first word” – an important moment in a child’s life.


‘Christmas Carols’

The focus of the poem ‘Christmas Carols’ is abortion and women’s rights. The poem is almost a monologue – but is a reply. It is a direct address to the anti-abortion lobby in the USA, the voice being someone who is campaigning for women to have the right to abort their child. There is enjambment all through this poem, most of the sentences actually start in the middle of lines, giving a rhythm and a theme that the sentences run through, showing that the horrific things discussed in the poem are still going on today.

The title itself contradicts the attitudes in the poem, ‘Christmas Carols’ makes it sound jolly and festive, yet actually it is the opposite, suggesting that the holy birth was unique, not all births are as holy as Jesus’. The poem begins with a statement that directly challenges the anti-abortion lobby:

“Children do not always mean hope. To some they mean despair.”

This is a reference to the holy birth, which gave hope to the people of Israel who were told that the Saviour had been born.

The poem continues immediately with a grotesque image of “This woman”. The use of the word ‘this’ points directly to the scene and the “woman” herself, establishing a relationship between her and the reader. The reader is then shocked by the fate of the woman, who had her “hair cut off so she could not hang herself”. Having a woman’s hair removed is the ultimate act of humiliation, it removes them of their gender, a woman’s hair is a symbol of their femininity. Atwood then tells us that she’s “thirty times raped & pregnant” – the use of the ampersand makes the two run as one, the rape and pregnancy were simultaneous due to the lack of contraception.

Atwood then gives us another example, she uses the phrase “This one” not “This woman” to de-humanise them, like the men did to them when they raped and abused them, they were objects to them. The fact that this woman’s pelvis was “broken by hammers” makes her seem even more like an object. Another example is given, of a woman who “punctured herself with kitchen skewers” to self abort. She’d prefer to do this than “bear again”, the use of the word bear is ambiguous, meaning both bear as in to give birth and bear as in to tolerate giving birth to a rapist’s child, and tolerate both emotionally/financially. The use of the phrase “past the limit” could be a reference to the one-child policy in China. This is immediately broadened out with the rhetorical question, “There is a limit, though who knows when it may come?” which could refer to limits emotionally, biologically and financially. Another shocking grotesque image is shown, with the idea of “small wax corpses” in “ditches” – children who were literally dumped as the mother couldn’t handle any more. 

Atwood then refers to nature, “the mother eats her young” saying that there’s even a form of abortion in nature, and so says to those at the anti-abortion lobby to “think twice” before they “worship turned furrows” – so that they don’t think that nature is perfect. Atwood says that abortion “too is Nature.”   


Atwood also tells them to think twice before they “single out one girl to play the magic mother” which is a reference to the Virgin Mary – a woman considered “magic” due to the fact that she was pregnant and a virgin. Atwood identifies Mary by saying that she’s in “blue & white”, the traditional Catholic uniform for Mary, and then says that she’s on a “pedestal”.  The use of the word ‘pedestal’ is ambiguous, it references both to the literal pedestal a statue would stand on, and the idea that she is considered better than most women as she was a pregnant virgin. She is “perfect & intact”, a virgin, and “distinct from those who aren’t” – this is Atwood challenging Catholics who say that a woman’s job is to procreate and produce good Catholic children, and yet those who have had sex seem to be considered ‘not perfect’, almost sinful.

Atwood then says that motherhood is a matter of “food and available blood” – saying that all a baby needs is food and it’s family, it’s blood relations. This could be a reference to many men going off to fight in wars, and so mother’s struggled. Then Atwood directly challenges the anti-abortion lobby, saying that if “mother hood is sacred, put your money where your mouth is.” – suggesting that they should make every pregnancy a wanted one, an impossible task. She then mocks them slightly, saying that what they want, what they “sing about” would be some kind of “miracle” – a day “when every child is a holy birth” which is a direct reference to Christmas, as there’s only been one holy birth – the birth of Jesus. 


Thanks for reading,


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