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The Changeling

Devils, witches, babies & moms

What's better than one devil baby? Two devil babies, of course. Two New England poets were haunted by this tale of an infant possessed by Satan. Or was it the work of Hampton witch Goody Cole? Or maybe the mother herself was insane. Or perhpas -- it was just a normal screaming baby and a very exhausted mom. You be the judjge.


Supernatural New England poems

READ: Whittier's version
READ: Lowell's version

Mother and ChildAs he did with his poem "Wreck of the Rivermouth," John Greenleaf Whittier again draws on the character Goody Cole, New Hampshire's only convicted "witch" to spice up a poem. "The Changeling" is also set in Hampton, a town very familiar to Whittier whose poems "Hampton Beach" and "Tenting on the Beach" were set there as well. Whittier imagined himself related to Rev. Batchelder, an early religious leader of Hampton. That, his ongoing fascination with witchcraft, and a friendship with "islad poet" Celia Thaxter all contributed to his choice of topic.

The legend of the changeling was popular in colonial New England where superstition was an early way to understand confusing occurrences. How, for example, could a gentle baby suddenly become a squalling little monster? The answer -- it was really an imp, the offspring of a devil or supernatural being. Stories of "exchanged children" persist from the earliest human legends in most cultures up into belief in fairy stories as recently as the 20th century.

In some religious interpretations the changeling is a piece of flesh with no heart or soul. In Whittier's poem, the distraught mother plans to throw the devilish infant into the fireplace. German theologian Martin Luther believed infanticide was a totally appropriate means of disposing of an exchanged child. Grimm's Fairy Tales suggest plenty of harsh treatment for changelings when they appear on Earth. Folklorist DL Ashliman suggests a connection between severe cases of early child abuse and child murder and the superstitious belief in the changeling tradition. The legends provided an acceptable excuse, in some societies, for mistreatment or murder of uncontrollable or handicapped children in a harsher age.

Since male babies, who could grow to provide physical labor were more "valuable," male infants in some cultures were dressed in female clothing to trick the supernatural forces. Mothers were warned to watch their babies carefully for at least six weeks to avoid an exchange, and talismans from crucifixes to bibles were left on the sleeping baby to ward off theft.

Changeling Poets

Whittier's poem adds extra twists. His presentation of the mother seems also to imply that her own psychological state may be the issue. A prayer from her husband appears to break the spell, be it depression or witchery. When the mother snaps out of her mood, she regrets, it appears, having blamed Goody Cole for bewitching her child. The husband then rides to Ipswich jail to repeal the sentence on the elderly Hampton woman. Does Whittier intend us to think that Goody replaced the baby with a devilish imp child? Or is he wondering about the power of the human psyche? His approach to Goody's curse in "Wreck of the Rivermouth" seems equally ambiguous.

Whittier's friend James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) focuses his version of "The Changeling" on angels rather then witches. Unlike the more dramatic Whittier poem that has a double happy ending, Lowell's lost child appears gone forever, stolen by angels and replaced by a soulless imp. 

Lowell was another of the literary elite from Cambridge, Mass who came to visit Celia Thaxter at her summer salon on Appledore Island. A man of letters and Harvard professor, Lowell was known as a romantic poet, a humorist, critic, and editor of Atlantic Monthly and author of 50 abolitionist articles. Lowell retained a fascination in the occult and wrote an extensive essay on witchcraft in his 1871 collected essays "Among My Books." --

READ: Whittier in NH

Copyright (c) 1998 J. Dennis Robinson. Updated 2005. Illustration of mother and child from "The Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier"Revised Edition, 1879, Riverside Press.

For more on Changelings read this essay by Professor D.L. Ashliman (click BACK to return to

CONTINUE To Read Both Versions

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