Mirror, Mirror On The Wall….

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Dorian Gray, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one of the most iconic characters in literature. The basic premise of his story is well known. While his portrait ages, he enjoys everlasting youth and beauty. “I bet he/she has a painting in the attic somewhere” is a phrase used even by those who haven’t read the book to compliment people who look younger than their age. His story is everyone’s story. We all have a little bit of Dorian Gray within us for who hasn’t harbored a desire to drink from the fountain of eternal youth, to stay unwrinkled and unblemished forever?

Basil Hallward, an artist who lives only for his art, is utterly besotted with the amazingly handsome Dorian, his muse. He paints a strikingly beautiful portrait of him but does not want to exhibit it to the world as he has put too much of himself into it. While Dorian sits for his picture, he meets Lord Henry Wotton, Hallward’s old friend who also ends up being captivated by him. Lord Henry encourages him to cherish his good looks and lead a life devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure. Basil believes him to be a bad influence on Dorian and asks him to refrain from advising him.

He speaks too late though for Dorian is already succumbing to Lord Henry’s influence. His words prompt him to unwittingly make a wish that will change his life forever. “ If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” He wishes his appearance would remain the same forever just as it is in the portrait and his wish is miraculously granted. He keeps his beauty intact and remains unsullied while the portrait pays the price for his excesses by changing into an ugly picture and becoming a grotesque reminder of his dishonorable behavior.

Lord Henry Wotton becomes Dorian’s mentor, philosopher and guide. He tests his theories and philosophies on the impressionable young man and gives him a book that serves as a blueprint for how he should live his life. Dorian lives a life of extravagance and debauchery ruining himself and those around him. When he breaks a young girl’s heart and drives her to commit suicide, he notices an evil glint in the eye of his portrait. With each of his transgressions, he remains pure and untainted but the figure in the portrait bears the burden of his actions and withers. His soul becomes more dark and damaged as he descends further and further into depravity and his picture continues reflecting the ravages of his lifestyle.

Dorian Gray’s situation reminds us of Faust’s pact with the devil for he is eternally enslaved to the picture. Even the sight of the aging picture fills him with grief. There is no deal with the devil here although one could say that Lord Henry is akin to the devil. He takes a fiendish delight in being the instigator while remaining unscathed himself as a passive observer.

Basil and Henry seem, respectively, like the good and evil conscience of Dorian’s nature. It is interesting that Oscar Wilde had once remarked: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” Like Basil, Wilde was a devotee of the cult of beauty and believed in the purity of art but was ostracized by society for being gay. Lord Henry could have been his public persona, the delightful dandy who regaled everyone at parties with his witticisms. And perhaps, Wilde wished to be loved and admired as Dorian and to indulge in a licentious lifestyle without suffering the consequences of his actions.

The book is known for its homosexual undertones. I would even say it is explicitly homoerotic. You don’t have to read between the lines. When it was published, it was considered ‘effeminate’ and ‘contaminating’ and was used against Wilde during his trial with the result that he was eventually prosecuted and imprisoned ‘for acts of gross indecency’ with other men. The fetishized descriptions of Dorian mirror Wilde’s own fascination with the young poet Lord Alfred Douglas with whom he had an affair and who, like Dorian, had a similar resemblance to Adonis, the Greek God of beauty and desire.

The story begins as an amusing novel of manners reflecting the aristocratic lifestyle of old Britain with intellectual and witty conversations in the drawing room and friendships that blossom over tea and strolls in the garden. There are male characters picking flowers for their buttonholes, perfuming themselves with exotic scents and fainting at the drop of a hat, reflecting the dandyism of the era but slowly the story takes a darker turn and incorporates Gothic elements of violence, horror and doubling- the portrait functioning as Dorian’s doppelgänger.

Dorian devotes himself to the study and acquisition of beautiful objects like tapestries,  embroideries, perfumes, musical instruments and jewels. His journey through the dark and dingy streets frequenting an opium den and encountering men of disrepute contrasts with the opulence he enjoys and reflects the lifestyle of unbridled hedonism that he has embraced. For all his vices, I didn’t view the morally depraved Dorian as a villain. I felt the poor guy needed a mother figure to knock sense into him. Eventually his conscience catches up with him and we have one of the best and most brilliant endings in literature.

The ending seems to contradict the preface to the novel which is a meditation on the nature of art and the concept of aestheticism or art for art’s sake. The novel paradoxically has a moral message although Wilde wasn’t a moralist. The question we have to ask ourselves is if art can be be truly beautiful without conveying some truth!

I view the book as a cautionary tale. It is a study of vanity, selfishness, shallowness and moral turpitude. It is a philosophical and psychological novel with a fascinating look into human nature. What is the meaning of beauty, what is the true value of external beauty when it is ephemeral and what is the price we are willing to pay for eternal youth and beauty? Could you be beautiful on the outside without inner beauty? It is a timeless story that addresses these questions that are as relevant as ever in our current times with our unhealthy obsession on physical beauty.

Oscar Wilde’s prose is rich in dialogue in keeping with his talent as a playwright. This book which happens to be his only novel is full of quotable quotes- little nuggets of wisdom mouthed by Lord Henry. Even Dorian remarks on his caustic wit : ‘’You cut life to pieces with your epigrams.’’ We could call these epigrams Henryisms or rather Wildisms for Wilde was well known for his acerbic wit. I had read this fin de siècle novel as a teenager and I enjoyed revisiting it again now with a deeper understanding. There is a misogynistic worldview espoused by some of the characters and that’s the only flaw I can reproach the author with in an otherwise outstanding piece of literature. I leave you with some of the humorous repartee as I conclude my post:

“….there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it & your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”

“Yes; she is a peacock in everything but beauty.”

“She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secret of their charm.”

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”

“There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.”  

“……each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion.” 

“Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.”

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.” 

“The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future”

And last but not the least, the aphorism that could apply to the book itself: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

The Picture Of  Dorian Gray is an introspective read that had me completely enthralled. Reading the book is like looking into a mirror and gazing at your own soul.

 

 

 

 

Social Distancing With Mrs. Dalloway!

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A recent article in The New Yorker points out that people are reaching for Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to read during the pandemic. Mrs. Dalloway, the titular character of the book is preparing for a party she is hosting in the evening and goes about her day running errands around London. According to Evan Kindley, the writer of the piece, “At a time when our most ordinary acts—shopping, taking a walk—have come to seem momentous, a matter of life or death, Clarissa’s vision of everyday shopping as a high-stakes adventure resonates in a peculiar way…”and she adds, “We are all Mrs. Dalloway now…”. Clarissa Dalloway’s mundane activities laced with a feeling of impending doom strike a chord with the readers as “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” The fact that Clarissa Dalloway is possibly a survivor of the global influenza pandemic of 1918 adds to the book’s current relevance.

I read this book for the first time coincidentally during the pandemic and not because of it and I was awed by its structural virtuosity. Like Joyce’s Ulysses which could have served as its inspiration, it is set in the course of a single day. The book is essentially plotless and it seems like there is not a lot going on but there is a lot going on as during the course of that day when Clarissa is planning her party and thinking about buying flowers, she reminisces about her childhood, her youth, her loves, her life and the choices she has made.There are moments of epiphany within the mundane moments.

Clarissa is not just Mrs. Dalloway, the lonely wife of a prominent MP in the conservative government but an intriguing woman with a past. An old flame Peter Walsh who has just returned from India drops by on the afternoon of the party. Peter was madly in love with her but she chose to marry Richard Dalloway, the safe option who could provide her with a stable life. She may have been in love with Sally too, a wild girl from her youth who also ends up making an appearance at the party.

Parallel to Clarissa’s story is the story of the young veteran, Septimus Smith who suffers from what was known then as shell shock and is now referred to as PTSD. As he retreats more and more from reality and loses his ability to feel, his wife and caretaker Rezia desperately yearns for babies and holds on to her impossible dreams.

In this modernist novel, the whole narrative flows in a stream of consciousness style from one person to the other, from one flashback to the other. This technique allows us to enter the minds of the characters- we know what they think and not just what they say or do. There are no chapters. Woolf subverts the traditional linear writing styles of literature and creates a new literary aesthetic. The narrative is disjointed and it is up to the readers to piece all the disparate strands together. The act of reading might seem like a tedious task and disorienting at first but ultimately becomes a transcendent experience.

Woolf employs a combination of free direct and indirect discourse, evident from the opening lines of the book itself:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach. 

What a lark! What a plunge!” 

The use of indirect discourse is a technique that enables her to effortlessly meander in and out of her characters’ minds and capture their private thoughts. Along with the characters’ sensory experience of the world outside, there is an unceasing and undulating flow of interior action. Isn’t this exactly how our minds work, wandering from thought to thought and hurtling through time and space? She jumps to a new character without warning and yet the rambling style flows seamlessly and has a cadence to it. While reading, I marveled at Woolf’s ingenious use of free indirect speech. It’s sheer genius.

In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf wrote that “Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners”. She uses the metaphor in this novel to connect events and characters in an expanding web like structure with Mrs. Dalloway at the center and the other characters attached to her by threads around her however tenuous they might be.

“And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin 
thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if one’s friends were attached to one’s body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider’s thread is blotted with rain –drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.

 And Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whithbread hesitated at the corner of Conduit Street at the very moment that Millicent Bruton, lying on the sofa, let the thread snap; snored.”

The characters move back and forth in time. In a novel that is not in chronological order -where the past is constantly interspersed with the present, the bells of Big Ben are a constant reminder of the linear and inexorable passage of time. Big Ben’s regular tolling is also a reminder that time and tide wait for no one. Death is the only concrete and inevitable reality.

Death is a constant and menacing presence lurking around. Through the description of  Septimus’ PTSD, we have a penetrating insight into mental illness and how shoddily it was treated at the time. Clarissa loves life and escapes her sorrows by throwing parties (although tempted at times by death she doesn’t act on that impulse) whereas Septimus is in utter despair. It is then surprising to consider that Woolf intended Septimus to be Clarissa’s double. Her life affirming presence is a contrast to Septimus’ depressing state of mind; he is removed from the world while she throws herself heartily into it.

Although they seem to be polar opposites, the discerning reader can sense that they are two sides of the same coin. Apart from sharing the physical trait of a beak nose, they read or think of the same lines from Shakespeare: “Fear no more the heat ’o the sun / Nor the furious winter’s rages.” The lines are from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline and imply that death is not to be feared but celebrated. The two never meet but observe the same external events like the passing of a motor car and a skywriting plane. They may seem to be in different mental states but the line between sanity and insanity is a thin one and their two stories intersect with a forceful climax at the end.

Woolf suffered from bipolar disease and attempted suicide a few times before her final ‘successful’ attempt. I got goosebumps reading about death and suicide in the novel knowing that it eventually became her own story. I was struck by the recurring theme of waves and the sea for Woolf died by drowning and both Septimus and Clarissa identify with images of water. Even the writing style mimics the motion of water. The sentences and paragraphs with the ebb and flow of memories and thoughts are uncontrolled like the movement of water.

To go with the imagery of water, the novel addresses the concept of sexual fluidity. Septimus has sexual feelings for his commanding officer Evans and Clarissa reflecting on her youth thinks that the moment Sally Seton kissed her was the most exquisite moment of her life. She is definitely attracted to her and to Peter too. She could have had bisexual tendencies. She also wonders about the nature of her daughter’s relationship with her history teacher. Woolf was bold and ahead of her time in her exploration of repressed sexual desires given that Mrs. Dalloway was written during a period when homosexuality was considered an outrage.

The novel offers a glimpse into post war British society with its class structures, the falling Empire, increased industrialization and the devastation brought on by World War 1. It is also a window into human nature touching upon love and marriage, unfulfilled wishes, sexuality, mental illness, feminism, mortality, death and suicide. To me one of the most poignant moments of the story is when Richard buys a bouquet of roses for Clarissa with the intention of telling her he loves her but can’t bring himself to say the words but yet “she understood without his speaking.”The conflict between solitariness and connection is pronounced in an increasingly alienating world no matter how many glittering parties you host.

In the current time of social distancing, we don’t have the luxury of hosting parties like Clarissa but the novel resonates as just getting through the day by completing daily chores requires endurance under these grim circumstances. And we have the same existential thoughts like the characters …..What is life and how do we live and find meaning in it when it goes by in the blink of an eye? Along with physical confinement, there is that crushing feeling of loneliness and much like Clarissa who feels the need to socialize recognizing all the same that it is a superficial way of connecting, we turn to our phones- to social media and to zoom calls in a desperate attempt to reach out however shallow the connections might be.

Mrs. Dalloway is a challenging read as the narrative continuously shifts perspectives and leaps across time and space but I think that creates a powerful psychological effect and an almost real and palpable sense of the way the minds of the characters shift from one thought to the other. I think this is one of the most stylistically beautiful and brilliant books of the English language I have ever read. And during the pandemic it was one of the books that helped me get through my own day and routine just like Mrs. Dalloway’s daily activities provided some structure in a chaotic, uncertain world.

 

 

Claudine à L’École ( Claudine at School) : Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

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The young Colette with luscious long braids!

Anonymous was often a woman, noted Virginia Woolf in her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own. In some cases she wasn’t anonymous but let a man take credit for her talent. And in one instance, the man and woman happened to be married to each other. The man was Henry- Gauthier-Villars who was more popularly known by his nom de plume “Willy” and the woman, Sidonie- Gabrielle Colette, one of the most eminent early 20thcentury French writers whose accomplishments are manifold. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. She was also a grand officer of La Légion d’honneur, she was the first female member and eventually President of the prestigious Académie Goncourt and the first woman to receive a State funeral in France. However her most important contribution was that she was a trailblazer in the world of letters and in the world at large in issues of gender identity and sexuality.

Colette’s colorful and controversial life would be great material for a novel of its own and no wonder it provided plenty of fodder for a newly released eponymous biopic depicting her career during the Belle Époque and starring the enormously talented Dominic West as Willy and the stunning Keira Knightley who simply sizzles as Colette. Willy ,the bohemian libertine, springs a marriage proposal on the young and innocent Colette and whisks her away from her sleepy village in Burgundy to the Parisian world of scintillating salons and soirées. She is upset initially by his philandering lifestyle but gradually comes to terms with it and becomes a woman of the world herself engaging in lesbian liasons sometimes with the same woman her husband sleeps with. To say the couple led an unconventional married life would indeed be an understatement!

Willy is a mediocre writer who has a factory of ghostwriters who work for him but he realizes that he has a gifted one right at home whom he can enlist for free. He encourages Colette to write a novel about her school days and she comes up with the semi-autobiographical Claudine à l’École ( Claudine at School) recounting the delightful escapades of a 15 year old school girl and providing an insight into fin de siècle life in provincial France. The book, for a story about schoolgirls, contains a few shocking scenes  which can be explained by the fact that Colette wrote the book in her early twenties looking back on her school days through the lens of a slightly older woman. But here and there one can also detect Willy’s masculine influence in the writing especially in the salacious details.

The book published in 1900 under Willy’s name becomes a resounding success. Willy forces her to produce sequels going as far as locking her in her room so she can do nothing but write. Although she has the proverbial room of her own, of what use is it if you are someone’s literary slave writing in captivity?

Claudine becomes a household name and takes Paris by storm inspiring the fashion style of young women. Colette, in turn, on the urging of Willy, imitates her creation and cuts her hair and dresses like the theatrical adaptation of Claudine. Claudine becomes Colette and Colette becomes Claudine with art imitating life and life imitating art.  When novel after novel becomes a sensation, Colette argues for the right to be published under her own name and eventually separates from Willy. The movie apart from exploring the early career and marriage of Colette, depicts a woman who defies societal expectations and comes into her own be it in the form of her sexual awakening or finding her literary voice and independence.

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First edition cover of Claudine à l’École with Willy credited as the author.

The movie made me nostalgic and I abandoned the book I was reading at the time to re-read the funny and delightful Claudine à l’École, a book I had read in my teens. I was enamored from the first line: “Je m’appelle Claudine, j’habite Montigny; j’y suis née en 1884; probablement je n’y mourrai pas.”(“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.).

Claudine is an intelligent, pretty and precocious 15 year old motherless girl who lives alone with her father in the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye. He is an indifferent parent who means well but is more interested in studying slugs than bothering with his growing girl. Her father has an extensive library at home and Claudine spends a lot of time reading. She also loves spending time in the woods immersed in nature, either alone or with her communion sister Clare. She is in the last year of school and hangs out with her friends Anaïs, Marie, Luce and the Joubert twins who don’t seem to share her intelligence or spirit. The girls are preparing for their board exams and looking forward to the end of the year school celebrations.

There is no dearth of words to describe our captivating Claudine -plucky, saucy, mischievous, mean, manipulative, bold, bossy, willful, outspoken, wicked, spunky, rebellious, over-confident are some of the adjectives to describe this spitfire of a gamine but yet she is adorable and you can overlook her flaws as she is comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t take herself or others too seriously. All the students and teachers think she is crazy. She talks to the teachers on an equal footing and at times is even disrespectful and impertinent. She gets away with her behavior as she is the star student who would bring prestige to their village school by doing well in the final exams.  There’s no doubt that her parents would have been called to school for her bullying in today’s environment. But one can’t help admiring how self-assured she is for her age when she peremptorily declares: “…on ne peut pas contenter tout le monde et soi-même. J’aime mieux me contenter d’abord… (… you can’t please everyone and yourself as well. I prefer to please myself first of all…’’).

I first read Claudine à l’École as a teenager and enjoyed the antics of the 15 year old just as I had enjoyed reading about other school series like Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers and the Twins at St. Clare’s. I didn’t quite pay attention to the homoerotic subtext. Claudine has a crush on Aimée Lanthenay, the new assistant teacher who appears to reciprocate her feelings but the school  head mistress, Miss Sergent wants Aimée for herself and comes in the way of their budding relationship. Aimée drops Claudine like a hot brick and shifts her attention to her superior. Aimée’s sister Luce has a crush on Claudine but the latter tortures the poor lamb and only bribes her with candy or lets her copy from her exercise book to extract information from her. The foolish girl still dotes on her.  Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

Maybe I was naïve or I didn’t think too much of how often the girls “s’embrassent’  and dismissed their kisses as chaste kisses or perhaps I considered the school girl crushes as a natural part of growing up and adolescent development when it is not uncommon to idolize someone of the same gender older to you. Now re-reading it as an adult, the homoeroticism is very apparent. In fact the text is unapologetically Sapphic. The crushes the girls have for each other or for their teachers are treated as the most natural thing on earth and are innocently portrayed without judgement, guilt or shame. Today the book would be listed under LGBQT or feminist studies genres. It was written before the time when such labels were de rigueur and it is remarkable that there is no awkwardness or euphemistic language in describing the feelings the girls have for each other. No one has to stay in the closet. To me this is such a refreshing aspect of the story and so quintessentially and unrepentantly French unlike Forster’s Maurice across the pond published a few years later which was also a coming of age school story dealing with same sex love but one fraught with tension and anxiety.

However there is a disturbing scene in the book which would be considered highly inappropriate behavior in our times. The superintendent of the school district is a lascivious creep who constantly eyes the young women of the school. He has a soft spot for Claudine and forcibly tries to kiss her when she is alone with him in a room. She manages to thwart his advances but not before he has planted a little kiss near the corner of her mouth. Although she is upset with him, she regains her composure and can’t help being flattered that he finds her pretty. And they quietly move on with their lives.

Colette beautifully captures the confusion and awkwardness of girls at the threshold of womanhood.  On the one hand, they are typical schoolgirls who giggle, blush, make faces, spill ink pots, chew pencils and even taste snowballs. They play games and pinch and punch each other, have pillow fights, cheat during exams, attach ribbons on their dresses, try to get ‘curl clouds’ in their hair and flout the dress code when possible. On the other hand, they are budding women oozing with sensuality. They check out boys from their dorm windows and make sure they are being checked out in turn. They flirt with both boys and other girls and with adults. They put on coquettish airs and use their beauty to get what they want. There is a lot of sexual tension between the girls, between the teachers and between the teachers and the girls.

I can’t help  getting sentimental about Colette. I spent a lot of time in my teens and twenties devouring her books. Moreover the sensual lyricism in her descriptions of both nature and human nature has inspired my own style of writing. I also found the book endearingly amusing. Whether Claudine is describing teachers making out in front of the students, or the state of her beloved cat Fanchette in heat, or boys from the neighboring school examining their lingerie display during a needlework exhibition, or Miss Sergent’s humiliation at the hands of her mother, her cynical and wry quips made me chuckle on practically every page. Claudine à l’École, the first of the Claudine novels was a nostalgic read for me. And it has left me hungry for more. And now I move on to Claudine à Paris to continue delighting in the antics of this irreverent but charming teenager!

 

 

 

 

Witch-Wife

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It is that time of the year when we think of supernatural creatures-goblins, witches, vampires, demons, werewolves. Perhaps the most fascinating of them all is the witch. When we picture a witch, we are most likely to conjure up an image of an old hag with crooked teeth and a hook nose dressed in a black cape and pointed hat, flying on a broom. But the witch who comes to my mind is not an evil or sinister creature. She is a sorceress too but a magical and mystical creature who is also alluringly feminine. She is the witch-wife.

Witch-Wife

She is neither pink nor pale,
And she will never be all mine;
She learned her hands in a fairy-tale,
And her mouth on a valentine.

She has more hair than she needs;
In the sun ‘tis a woe to me!
And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.

She loves me all that she can,
And her ways to my ways resign;
But she was not made for any man,
And she will never be all mine.

The Witch-Wife is a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, the celebrated American poet and playwright who received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. At first glance, it is a simple and straightforward rhyming poem. We are intrigued at once by the dichotomy of the title. A witch and a wife are diametrically opposite beings. The wife is a married woman who takes care of her home and hearth and is grounded in her domestic duties. She is tied to matrimony and thereby automatically restrained while a witch is a wild and magical creature who knows how to fly and cast spells.

As you start reading the poem, you notice other contrasts. She is neither pink nor pale. She is neither robust and healthy like the average wife nor wan with a deathly pallor like a witch. She belongs neither to the world of the living nor to the world of the dead. And she never will be all mine. This line is quite ominous in tone as we know at the outset that this woman whom the speaker is talking of will be unattainable and outside his reach. The poem is written by a woman and describes a woman but the speaker is most likely a man and probably the husband. The word ‘all’ implies that she could belong to him to some extent but not belong to him completely or wholly. Otherwise he simply would have said that ‘she never will be mine’. The words ‘neither’, ‘never’ and ‘nor’ are negations used to emphasize the elusiveness of the woman. She learned her hands in a fairy-tale, And her mouth on a valentine. She is not a practical woman. Maybe she was taught or raised to be practical but everything she does or says-the hands -on knowledge and wisdom that she has acquired is all colored with her idealism. She is flighty (she is a witch after all ) and lives in a parallel universe different from the reality that her husband occupies. It is a realm of romance and imagination to which he has no access or which he simply does not comprehend. The lady seems to straddle these two worlds all at once.

She has more hair than she needs; In the sun ‘tis a woe to me. She has long, lustrous locks but why does her hair cause great distress to him in the sun? Is it because the sunlight reveals her witch-like hair? Maybe her voluminous hair is matted or tangled or does it show another aspect of her mien or another side of her nature? And her voice is a string of colored beads, Or steps leading into the sea. We have the lovely metaphor of her soft and gentle voice similar to a string of colored beads. Her voice makes her real, alive and of this world. But this line is immediately followed by another alliterative metaphor accentuating the fact that although her voice seems real and charming, it can ensnare you. Her voice is akin to steps leading into the sea which imply drowning or death. Her voice is of this world and of the other world. The colored beads remind us of an incantation or spell. She is like the legendary siren-part woman and part bird who lures men to their death by her seductive singing. The witch- wife like the siren is part wife and part witch- a beautiful  woman but also an enchantress, a beguiling seductress who uses her feminine wiles to entrap men.

She loves me all that she can; And her ways to my ways resign; These two lines momentarily give us the impression that she is the ideal woman in spite of the fact that the speaker has already stressed on her intangibility and elusiveness. She loves him “all that she can” could mean that she loves him to the best of her ability. She is a compliant woman who submits to him willingly. But she was not made for any man, And she never will be all mine. This is the let down after the build up of the previous line when she seems like perfection incarnate to a man. However, it is not really an anti-climax as he has already indicated in the beginning that “she never will be all mine.” The word “never” reinforces the fact that there is no possibility of her belonging to him totally.  The line “But she was not made for any man..” could indicate that she was not made for any sort of ordinary man but for a special kind of man. Or could it mean that she was made for a woman?

It was no secret that Edna Vincent St. Millay, known as Vincent to her close friends and family, was bisexual and had several affairs with both men and women. She was happily married to her husband, Eugen Boissevain and they had an open marriage. I normally like to separate the poet from the poem but it is hard to overlook Edna St. Millay’s unconventional lifestyle and feminist activism in analyzing her work. We have to remember that even discussing heterosexuality, let alone homosexuality, was a taboo subject in the 1920s and that she was a trailblazer who made possible the writing of many future gay men and women. By evoking polarities in the poem, I wonder if she is also highlighting polarities of human nature and sexuality. The poem is written by a woman about a woman. The witch-wife could be a self-portrait or any one of the women the poet knew in her life or someone from her own imagination. There are so many ways you could read the poem but I still feel strongly that the speaker is a man. But does it matter? The speaker could very well be a woman too. In any event, the witch-wife will never belong completely to any man nor to any woman for she is in control of who she is and in charge of her own sexuality.

Hope your Halloween is as spellbinding as this otherworldly poem! As for me, I am beWITCHed!