‘Half-Hanged Mary’ – Margaret Atwood Analysis of 12am and 2am

‘Half-Hanged Mary’ is a ballad poem by feminist poet Margaret Atwood. It is written about Mary Webster, a resident of Puritan Hadley, Massachusetts who was accused of witchcraft in 1684. She was acquitted but later was hanged from a tree by the residents of Hadley. According to one of several accounts, she was left hanging all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive and lived for another 14 years. Atwood believed Mary to be ancestor so dedicated this poem about her as well as her novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.

12 Midnight

This is the time where Mary begins to despair and feels the presence of death very keenly. It begins with “My throat is taut against the rope”, showing the physical effect to the reader of Webster’s experience and showing that she is now beginning to lose her power of words. Atwood uses a lot of abstract ideas within this verse. With the use of a lot of concrete nouns such as “rope”, “heart”, “feathers”, “crow” and “sluts”. She uses these concrete nouns as a way of personifying death.

“Death sits on my shoulder like a crow; waiting for my squeezed beet; of a heart to burst; so he can eat my eyes” 

This is used as a metaphor to the image of death waiting for Mary’s body to ‘give up’ and die so that it can go on and take over her body.

“or like a judge; muttering about sluts and punishment; and licking his lips”

The abstract idea of death being a “judge” could not only be the ‘court’ judge, but also personifying death to the residents of Hadley also ‘judging’ her.

“or like a dark angel; insidious in his glossy feathers; whispering to me to be easy; on myself. To breathe out finally; Trust me, he says, caressing me. Why suffer?”

Now Atwood uses antithesis as she is personifying death to an “angel”, this is to enhance the idea presented in this stanza of death being somewhat ‘kind’ to Mary and seeing death as a good thing as she is no longer to suffer. “Caressing me” again gives the personification of death in a ‘kind’ manner.

Other devices used in 12am is alliteration “blood bulges in my skull”, this emphasizes the graphic image to the reader of Webster’s experience at that time to help understand the pain of her “clenched teeth holding it in”. Atwood uses biblical language in this verse, again, as an abstract idea, as the word “angel” gives the idea of the religious side to death and eternal life.


Atwood uses more biblical language in this verse but now, Webster has more bitter thoughts directed at God. “Which you could confuse with prayer except that praying is not constrained”, meaning Webster’s voice is restricted of saying her prayer to God. Webster thinks more about prayer, comparing it to the strangulation that she is enduring, “maybe it’s more like being strangled than I once thought”. Atwood also compares her experience to the disciples at Pentecost, “Did those men at Pentecost want flames to shoot out of their heads?” almost ‘down talking’ God’s work in a way by suggesting an idea of the act of good turning out to be bad, “did they ask to be tossed on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry, eyeballs bugling?” She also says that the prayer of “the knees in the clean nightgown” “I want this, I want that” isn’t a true real prayer, but believes the only real prayer is the meaningful prayer for mercy.

“Call it Please. Call it Mercy. Call it not yet, not yet,” 

Atwood uses anaphora of the words “call it”, to convey the sense of force and determination in which she had in showing her Mercy to God.

Atwood’s writing style of graphic language is conveyed a lot throughout these two verses, “knotted muscle”, “heart to burst”, “strangled” and “shredded flesh” as a way of getting her point across on how strongly she feels about the subject, as well as creating a very harsh and graphic image into the reader’s head for a deeper understanding.





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