'The Witch' by William Butler Yeats

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Toil and grow rich,
What's that but to lie
With a foul witch
And after, drained dry,
To be brought
To the chamber where
Lies one long sought
With despair?

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Witch: An Ode to Yeats' Fascination with the Occult

William Butler Yeats is known for his fascination with the occult and the supernatural, a fascination that is evident in his poem, The Witch. This classic poem is a testament to Yeats’ mastery of words and his ability to weave a mesmerizing tale of magic and mystery.

At its core, The Witch is a poem about the allure of the occult and the power it holds over people. Yeats explores the idea of witches as powerful and enigmatic beings, capable of bending the will of others to their own desires. But there is more to this poem than just a simple tale of witchcraft. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deeper into the themes and symbolism of The Witch and explore the ways in which Yeats uses language to bring his vision to life.

The Power of Words

One of the most striking things about The Witch is the way in which Yeats uses language to create a sense of enchantment and otherworldliness. From the very first line, the poem is imbued with a sense of magic and mystery:

A woman's beauty is like a white
Frail bird, like a sea-bird alone
At daybreak after a stormy night;
Away by the sea-tides blown.

The language here is evocative and ethereal, conjuring up images of a rugged coastline and a solitary bird flying free. The woman in question is compared to this bird, suggesting that she too is a creature of the wild, untamed and free.

Throughout the poem, Yeats uses words to create a sense of otherworldliness and magic. He describes the witch as having “hair like a bat” and “eyes like a cat,” emphasizing her animalistic nature and her connection to the natural world. He also uses vivid imagery to describe the witch’s spellcasting, painting a picture of a dark and mysterious ritual:

The witches dance,
The owls are flown,

Give him the thrice-lost crown;
The moon is red, the stars are gone,
Mute in her spell the night hangs on
To the stillness of one.

The repetition of the word “gone” in this stanza is particularly effective, emphasizing the sense of otherness that surrounds the witch and her magic. The use of the word “mute” to describe the night creates a sense of quiet and stillness, as if the entire world is holding its breath in anticipation of the witch’s next move.

The Allure of the Occult

One of the key themes of The Witch is the allure of the occult and the power it holds over people. Yeats’ fascination with the supernatural is well-documented, and this poem is a clear expression of that fascination. The witch is portrayed as a powerful and mysterious figure, capable of bending others to her will:

Her lips are red, her looks are free,
Her locks are yellow as gold:
Her skin is as white as leprosy,
And she is drowned in mould.

Despite her frightening appearance, the witch is alluring and captivating, drawing the narrator in with her “red lips” and “free looks.” This suggests that there is something irresistible about the world of the occult, something that draws people in and holds them captive.

Yeats also explores the idea that the pursuit of the occult can be a dangerous and damaging thing. The witch is described as being “drowned in mould,” suggesting that her obsession with magic has led to her decay and decay. The poem warns of the dangers of becoming too consumed with the pursuit of knowledge and power, and of the toll it can take on the soul.

Symbolism and Meaning

As with many of Yeats’ poems, there is a great deal of symbolism at work in The Witch. The most obvious symbol is the witch herself, who represents the allure of the occult and the power it holds over people. But there are other symbols at play as well.

One of the most significant symbols in the poem is the sea. The woman is compared to a “sea-bird” and is described as being “blown away by the sea-tides.” This suggests that the woman is connected to the ebb and flow of the natural world, and that her power comes from her ability to tap into that primal energy.

The crown that the witch seeks is also a powerful symbol, representing the ultimate prize in her quest for power. The fact that it is “thrice-lost” suggests that this crown is a symbol of something that has been lost and regained many times over, perhaps representing the cyclical nature of power and the pursuit of knowledge.


The Witch is a powerful and evocative poem that speaks to Yeats’ fascination with the occult and the supernatural. Through his use of language, Yeats creates a sense of enchantment and otherworldliness that draws the reader in and holds them captive. The poem explores the allure of the occult and the dangers that come with pursuing knowledge and power, and is filled with powerful symbolism that adds depth and meaning to the text.

Overall, The Witch is a masterful work of poetry that continues to captivate and intrigue readers to this day. Yeats’ fascination with the occult may have been controversial in his time, but it has left an indelible mark on the literary world and continues to inspire and influence writers to this day.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Witch by William Butler Yeats is a classic poem that has been studied and analyzed by literary scholars for decades. This poem is a perfect example of Yeats' unique style of writing, which combines elements of mysticism, folklore, and symbolism to create a haunting and unforgettable piece of literature.

The poem begins with the speaker describing a witch who lives in the woods. The witch is described as being old and ugly, with a crooked nose and a hunchback. She is also said to be very powerful, with the ability to control the elements and cast spells on those who cross her path.

As the poem progresses, the speaker becomes more and more fascinated with the witch. He describes her as being both terrifying and alluring, and he is drawn to her despite his fear. He watches as she performs her rituals and casts her spells, and he is both fascinated and repulsed by what he sees.

One of the most striking aspects of this poem is the way that Yeats uses symbolism to convey his message. The witch is not just a physical presence in the poem; she is also a symbol of the darker aspects of human nature. She represents the primal, instinctual urges that lie beneath the surface of our civilized society. She is a reminder that we are all capable of great evil, and that we must be vigilant in order to keep these darker impulses in check.

Another important symbol in the poem is the moon. The moon is a powerful symbol in many cultures, and in this poem it represents the cyclical nature of life and death. The witch is said to be "dancing to a tune" that is played by the moon, which suggests that she is in tune with the natural rhythms of the universe. This is in contrast to the speaker, who is described as being "out of tune" with the world around him.

The poem also contains a number of references to mythology and folklore. The witch is described as being "like a cat in the dark" and "like a bird in the air," which are both references to traditional beliefs about witches and their ability to transform into animals. The speaker also mentions the "harpies" and the "Furies," which are both figures from Greek mythology that represent vengeance and punishment.

Overall, The Witch is a powerful and haunting poem that explores some of the darker aspects of human nature. Yeats' use of symbolism and mythology adds depth and complexity to the poem, and his unique style of writing makes it a truly unforgettable piece of literature. Whether you are a fan of poetry or simply interested in exploring the darker side of human nature, The Witch is a must-read.

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