19 October 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/42

The Town Witch

Crab-faced, crab-tongued, with deep-set eyes that glared,
Unfriendly and unfriended lived the crone
Upon the common in her hut, alone,
Past which but seldom any visitor fared.
Some said she was a witch and rode, wild-haired,
To devils' revels: on her hearth's rough stone
A fiend sat ever with gaunt eyes that shone –
A shaggy hound whose fangs at all were bared.
So one day, when a neighbor's cow had died
And some one's infant sickened, good men shut
The crone in prison: dragged to court and tried:
Then hung her for a witch and burnt her hut. –
Days after, on her grave, all skin and bones
They found the dog, and him they killed with stones.

Madison Cawein

Sonnets are often associated with love poetry, and in a way that's what we have here: an unacknowledged and disrespected love between two unlovely creatures, a crabbed old woman and her belligerent dog. The form is a classic Italian or Spenserian sonnet: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, divided into an octave and a sestet, rhyming abbaabba / cdcdee.

The octave sets the scene and presents the characters: an old woman with glaring eyes, unfriendly and also unfriended – she does not seek out her neighbors, and they avoid her. (I wonder if there's a pun in "past witch [witch] but seldom any visitor fared.") She lives in a "hut" upon the common, which is, as the name implies, open space for public use, but since the townsfolk avoid her shabby dwelling, she seems to be a squatter there, taking up public land. We are not specifically told anything about the town – the time and place are not specified – but its inhabitants are also major players here. The ambiguity of time and place gives the story a fairly general application and a fable-like aura, though the belief in witches and devils' revels, and a hut upon the commons, and the hanging of a witch and the stoning of her dog are all going to suggest Puritan New England, in particular the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. (Cawein himself, though American, is not a New England poet; he lived in Louisville, Kentucky, around the turn of the twentieth century.)

But there really isn't anything here specific to Salem, or even America; this could be in any number of small towns in the United States or Europe during any earlier times that believed in witchcraft as an evil force (in fact, we still sometimes hear about accused witches being killed by fellow villagers in rural areas of Russia or Africa). The situation here lines up with historical studies that have shown that many of those accused of and killed for witchcraft were odd, alienated, outsider women, like our subject here. We are not given her name or history; we see her only as an old woman, and only in connection with her surroundings (the title emphasizes this: she's the Town Witch, as if she filled a certain role in this town, and is trapped within her town's perception of her). It's interesting how many compound adjectives are used to describe her: crab-faced, crab-tongued, deep-set (eyes), wild-haired. Perhaps this is meant to evoke early Anglo-Saxon poetry, adding to the sense of a certain timeless quality in the poem.

The first half of the octave gives us this isolated, cantankerous old woman; the second half gives us the townsfolk's view of her: Some said she was a witch and rode, wild-haired, / To devils' revels. . . . Hair is often deeply sexualized; think of how some religions require women to cover their hair, or the way long hair on men became a controversial social issue in the United States in the 1960s (the "hippies" were almost invariably described with the Homeric epithet long-haired, suggesting that you could not tell hippie men and women apart, and that this was a strange and dangerous thing). The devils' revels (nice little internal rhyme there, also) were usually thought of as orgies. So it's interesting that the "wild hair" of this solitary and aged woman is specifically mentioned in the descriptions of her as a witch, bringing in an aura of loose, threatening sexuality, despite her age and isolation.

As we continue with this outside view of the old woman, we see she has a "fiend" always with her – and witches were always accompanied by a "familiar," a demon who attends them, often in the form of an animal. But in this case, it is gradually revealed that this fiend, this demonic familiar, is just a dog. The townsfolk are legitimately frightened, though, of this hostile, menacing animal. There are some dogs that are aggressive towards anyone besides their owner – or perhaps this dog picked up on his owner's attitude and was following along. In either case a dog's bared fangs are another good reason to distrust the old woman and her hut.

In the sestet, we get the action of the poem: there's the usual run of bad luck (a cow dies, a child falls sick), and it gets pinned on "the witch." She is rapidly disposed of and her hut (encroaching on the commons) is burnt by the God-fearing and orderly. I do think that the italicization of good to emphasize the irony is a bit heavy-handed, but it's also true that I grew up in a society in which the God-fearing and law-abiding officials were almost automatically assumed to be self-serving hypocrites, and that was not necessarily the assumption in turn-of-the-twentieth-century America. And I wouldn't be too dismissive of the townspeople, or too sentimental about the old woman: she is nasty, and her dog is potentially dangerous.

Up until the final couplet, we've seen the old woman and her dog from the villagers' point of view. We don't necessarily share it, but their perspective is the one given to us: she's hostile, isolated, strange, most likely a witch; her dog is aggressive and vicious and most likely a devil. In the concluding lines, we are given a glimpse of the so-called witch's inner life. She has no friends, and there is no mention of any husband or children either living or dead. What emotional connection, what love, has ever entered this woman's life? The horrible dog, now starving ("all skin and bones") without his mistress to feed him, lingers by her grave, faithfully, It's a touching image, suggesting a deep bond between the two isolated and unloved creatures. The good folks of the town kill him with the resonantly Biblical punishment of stoning. Nothing has changed their perspective; ours diverges even further from theirs.

This poem is from Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman, a new anthology edited by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series. The cover has a beautiful painting of a sea-serpent, which is enough to sell me on a book.

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