Analysis of Poem "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath and the Poem "Mirror"
Mirror is a short, two stanza poem, written in 1961. Sylvia Plath was living in England with her fellow poet and husband, Ted Hughes, and she had already given birth to their first child, Frieda.
This was a stressful time for Sylvia Plath. As a first-time mother she was on the way toward fulfilling her love for her partner but deep inside she dreaded the idea of ever growing old and settling down.
In a journal entry as a teenager she wrote : 'Somehow I have to keep and hold the rapture of being seventeen. Every day is so precious I feel infinitely sad at the thought of all this time melting farther and farther away from me as I grow older.'
And again: 'I am afraid of getting older. I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day - spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote.'
The poem is an exploration of this uncertain self and was probably influenced by the earlier poem of poet James Merrill, likewise titled Mirror.
Sylvia Plath's poem has her hallmark stamp of powerful language, sharp imagery and dark undertones. Together with unusual syntax, no obvious rhyme or meter and an astute use of enjambment, Mirror is a personification poem of great depth.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful,
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
Two stanzas that reflect each other, mirror images you could say, that contain no obvious end rhymes or steady beat to the lines. From this we can suggest that there is no closure or certainty or order.
Rhyme tends to secure the lines, anchor them in a familiar sound, but here the poet has chosen to end each line with a different word, virtually unrelated in sound or texture. It's free verse yet with so many periods (end stops, full stops) and limited enjambment, the text looks more like dialogue from a play.
Mirror is a personification poem, that is, the poet has given the mirror a voice, a first person voice, so the first line:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
is the mirror speaking. It is direct, objective and open. It has a personality. This device allows the mirror to address the reader (and any individual) at a personal level. You may know of a similar mirror in the fairytale Sleeping Beauty, where the vain Wicked Queen looks in to her mirror to ask 'Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?'
In the first stanza the mirror declares - I am not cruel, only truthful -/The eye of a little god, four cornered. So the mirror becomes the eye of a little god, metaphorically speaking.
And at the start of the second stanza - Now I am a lake - is also a metaphor, as the mirror becomes deep water.
The final few words - like a terrible fish - constitute a simile.
Further Analysis - First Stanza
This poem is all about appearances and the search for the self. The fact that the mirror is the voice and has the starring role is a little odd, but Sylvia Plath wanted to show just how powerful an object the mirror is in people's lives.
In particular, she wanted to highlight the issue that some females have with their image and the inner turmoil that can be caused as the aging process gathers pace. The poet's own struggle for a stable identity only adds to the idea that the face in the mirror must stay young, pretty and perfect.
Lines 1- 3
The opening lines introduce us to the passive rectangle of silver, the glass, the shiny surface which only tells the truth and has no other purpose. Mirrors have no prior knowledge of anything; they simply are.
Note the use of the verb swallow which suggests that the mirror has a mouth and can digest images instantly, whole, like a creature. It's as if the mirror is saying - To me you are food which I need to satisfy my insatiable appetite. There are no blurry lines; love or judgement has nothing to do with it. I will swallow you. End of story.
This objective theme continues as the mirror reinforces the idea of neutrality - it simply tells the story as it is, no fuss, no elaboration, no fabrication. And it is this quality - truthfulness - which allows the mirror to declare itself as the eye of a little god; an all seeing minor deity holding disproportionate power.
To strengthen its position within the room, the house, the host's mind, it does little but meditate on the opposite wall. Like some open eyed staring sage the mirror sits contemplatively.
The wall is pink, speckly, and is now an integral part of the mirror's heart, suggesting that this silver eyed god has gained a feminine side to its persona. Pink is associated with girlie things - but the connection isn't that clear - there are uncertain faces coming between it and the wall of pink.
Is the mirror losing its grip on its own reality? Are the ripples of time starting to affect the smooth surface?
More Analysis - Second Stanza
Whereas the first stanza concentrated on the exact truthfulness of the mirror, the ability to reflect precisely, the second stanza sees a transition - the mirror becomes a liquid, it gains depth and a different dimension.
With god-like medium-shifting power, the mirror becomes a lake, metaphorical water. In it is reflected the image of a woman - the poet, any woman? - and she is bending over as one would over the surface of a lake.
This woman is uncertain of herself and needs to find out who she really is. But can a person truly find out who they are merely by peering into a lake? Don't forget, this type of water can swallow any image it comes across.
Didn't Narcissus look into a similar lake and was so overcome with his own beauty that he fell in and drowned?
The woman isn't interested in beauty it seems, perhaps she's more intent on learning about her emotional responses to her former self? Candlelight can't help her cause, it's a deceptively romantic way of looking at things, and the moon likewise, governs only madness and haunting of the blood.
She can't dwell on the past.
Nevertheless, the mirror sees her back which is what the eye of a little god would do, and holds the image, as always.
The woman weeps, which pleases the mirror, perhaps because the tears replenish the water in the lake, or maybe the mirror is happy because it has done its job of faithful reflection and so feels rewarded.
But the woman is clearly upset, because the past holds such powerful memories, not all positive. This part of the poem is crucial, for we discover the mirror's aim - to disturb the woman.
The deity has control of the human, which is how the traditional stories often pan out.
So, we know the mirror believes that it is important to the woman, and so it appears - she looks at herself each morning, so reliant has she become. The revelation, hardly a shock, is that the woman's younger self is dead, drowned by her own hand. Replacing the girl on a daily basis is the face of an old woman, surfacing like a terrible fish.
Imagine the horror of facing the mirror each morning and confronting an inner demon, which is what the poet intends to convey. The innocent, romantic, crazy girl floats in the water, all life gone. And out of her there rises from the (emotional) depths a hagfish, a monstrosity.
© 2017 Andrew Spacey