The Witch

“The Witch,” from Yeats’s Responsibilities and Other Poems:

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?

If economy is the essence of poetry (and it is, in case you were wondering), Yeats is one of the very best. A whole implied fairy tale is packed into these few microscopic lines. It takes the mind a second to realize that, but once you start unpacking it, you find that everything you need is in there — a complete, coherent narrative — a masterpiece of file compression.

And every strand of this little story is brought to point in the final line, with its three-way syntactic ambiguity. Brought with despair? Lies with despair? Sought with despair? Yes, all of the above — and the unity of those three despairs is the point of the poem.

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