Early Morning Hanging

An analysis of ‘Half Hanged Mary’ by Margaret Atwood, from 3am to 6am. If you haven’t read my other post on HHM, poke around my blog and you’ll find it eventually (I hope!)


The voice of Webster in this section seems insane yet determined, she has got this far and can’t give in to death now. There’s no punctuation in this section, and no stanza form, to show the confusion in Webster’s mind. Atwood uses lots of repetition, as if Webster is losing her mind and is forgetting what she’s already said:

“Wind seethes in the leaves around

me the tree exude night

birds night birds yell inside”

As well as repetition Atwood uses homonyms and synonyms to suggest Webster’s lack of control of her mind, “I was born I have borne I bear I will be born”.

Atwood uses lots of vivid verbs, yet mainly violent ones, “yell” “stabbed” “clench”, suggesting that Atwood is thinking violently. Despite this, some of the verbs are more gentle, “fluttering”, which contrasts heavily with the violent verbs, insinuating confusion. Some verbs also have connotations with ways of killing witches, “dangle” “drowning” to reiterate the theme of the poem.


The voice of this section is calmer, and talks almost as if Webster is having a timeless out of body experience, “Time is relative,”. The section is split into 6 short stanzas, which shows that Webster has regained control of her mind, she is less confused. 

There are again references to nature, yet Atwood remarks that the sun is “no longer a simile for God” – showing that Webster is questioning her faith (reminding me of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’). Later on, in the fourth stanza of this section Atwood mixes the semantic field of religion and the semantic field of science to show how Webster is doubting everything, “listening to the gospel of the red-hot stars”.

The use of language and punctuation in the stanzas suggest that time is slowing down, like an out of body experience, “when you drift in space”. The use of verbs and abstract nouns highlights the odd, almost hallucinogenic nature of this experiene (reminding me of “Bayonet Charge” by Ted Hughes), “Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain a revelation of deafness”.

Atwood talks about death, and how Webster hasn’t died physically, her hair hasn’t “turned white”, but she has died spiritually, her “heart” is gone, “bleached out”, suggesting that she has lost all of her love and goodness due to the hate of others.

Atwood writes:

“At the end of my rope”

This is a common feature of Atwood’s poetry in which she twists an idiom. She twists the common idiom ‘at the end of my tether’ which means to get frustrated to refer to the rope that Webster is being hung with. This suggests that Webster may be getting frustrated with life and feels like giving in to the temptation of death, she wants to “testify to silence” – silence being a euphemism for death. Yet in the last two lines of this section Atwood shows that Webster will not give in, saying that she will not only have one death, she “will have two.” The use of language in these last two lines are vain, almost as if Webster is showing off.

Thanks for reading,

An Analysis of Half-Hanged Mary by Margaret Atwood – From 7pm til 10pm

‘Half-Hanged Mary’ is a poem detailing the unsuccessful hanging of Mary Webster, a woman accused of being a witch due to her “cure for warts” and her gender. The poem’s main focus is witchcraft and the persecution of women. It is a ballad with irregular stanza lengths, showing that we don’t know whether she will live. It is a first person narrative, from the thoughts of Webster herself. The poem is separated into hours, showing that the thoughts are over a long period of time, and also showing the fact that Mary is ‘half-hanged’ – she hasn’t died.


This set of stanzas details the rumours leading up to Webster’s accusation. The idea that “Rumour was loose in the air” gives the image and impression of a gas, yet the word “hunting” gives it a purpose, a malevolent nature, as if this gas is poisonous and isn’t hovering harmlessly, but sweeping over a village. The use of the words “neck” and “loose”  already conjure up images associated with hanging. It is ironic that Webster is participating in a pastoral act of nurture at this time, “milking the cow”, showing that she is responsible and not evil.

The use of imagery in stanza 2 shows that words can be used as weapons :”the aimed word”, “soft bullet”, almost alluding to the idiom ‘The pen is mightier than the sword” – that words can be more of a weapon  than any physical weapon. Atwood also subtly mentions two other methods of death in this stanza, “like water” – the idea of witches being drowned, and “thrown stone” – the idea of witched being stoned to death. 

Stanzas 3 and 4 detail why she was sentenced to hang. “A surefire cure for warts” shows that she was lucky in helping someone get rid of warts and was thus thought of as a witch. This is ironic as if she were a doctor or a priest it would be considered medical, or miraculous – yet because she is a woman who lives “alone” she is persecuted. She then highlights the fact that she is accused of being a witch because she is a woman, “and breasts”. The imagery of a “sweet per hidden in my body” representing the womb also highlights her feminine nature, but also conjures up images of the Biblical idea of forbidden fruit. 


These stanzas detail the actual act of hanging her. Atwood starts by saying that the “rope” was an “improvisation” – suggesting that they’d use a more brutal act of “axes” if they had thought about it. The use of the word “improvisation” and later on “show of hate” makes the whole thing sound like a piece of drama, a piece of theatre, highlighting the fact that in those days hangings were public entertainment. 

Atwood uses several images to describe her ascent, “a windfall in reverse”. The phrase “a flag raised to salute the moon” references the common belief at the time of Mary Webster that witch’s powers came from the moon. The image “a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree” has several connotations. The idea of a “blackened apple” gives ideas of black magic and the idea that magic can make you rotten. The “tree” also gives Biblical ideas of the Tree of Life, the birthplace of sin. Atwood also raises the idea of original sin by using the phrase “old original”.

“Their own evil turned inside out like a glove

and me wearing it.”

This image shows that it’s the executors who are evil, not Webster’s – yet she is the one that the public believe is evil. This is very powerful and conveys the message perfectly.


This selection of stanzas shows the reaction of the people and Webster’s reaction to them. She describes the puritans (“the bonnets”) and the nuns/priests (“the dark skirts”) as “lipless” – showing that they’re too scared to speak in case they associate themselves with the witch as they think “Birds of a feather burn together”. Atwood has deliberately twisted an idiom into this for effect. 

Atwood shows that Webster was a helpful woman, curing babies and helping those with unwanted ones, the “non-wife” who needed an abortion to “save” her life. And yet these people do not help her, not even offering a “hand, “bread” or a “shawl”. These three items conjure up Christian ideas, especially of the parable of the goats and the sheep. Atwood almost mocks the religious by saying “Lord knows” – these people are religious to the bone, and yet they’re selfish, they “need it all” and do not help Webster.


Thanks for reading,


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,