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Sylvia Plath's "Mirror"

Updated on January 5, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sylvia Plath

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Mirror"

One of the best poems of the 20th century. Sylvia Plath's "Mirror," has only two unrimed, nine-line verse paragraphs (veragraphs). The theme of the poem highlights the reality of the aging process.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The mirror dramatizes it own amazing skill in reflecting whatever is placed before it exactly as the object is. Of course, a lake serving as a mirror will do the same thing. It is the mirror as lake, however, who gets to report the flailing agitation and tears of the woman who watches and decides that a "terrible fish" is rising toward her.

The death of Sylvia Plath at the tender age of thirty renders unto this awesome poem an uncanny quality. Because Plath left this earth at such an early age, the poet put an end to the actuality that she could have undergone the aging process as does the woman in the poem.

Mirror

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.

A reading of "Mirror"

Commentary

First Versagraph: Now a Metaphoric Mirror

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.

The mirror opens the poem with somewhat of a boast: "I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions." The mirror continues to proclaim its uncanny truthful ability for over half the versagraph.

It reports that it takes in whatever is placed before it with no compunction to change it in any way. The mirror cannot be moved as human beings are by emotion. The mirror simply reflects back the cold hard facts, unfazed by human desires and whims. The mirror does, however, seem almost to possess the human quality of pride in its ability to remain objective.

As the mirror continues its objective reporting, it claims that it is "not cruel, only truthful." Again, it is making its case for complete objectivity, making sure its listeners understand that it always portray each object before it as the object actually is.

However, again it might go a little too far, perhaps spilling its pride of objectivity into the human real as it proclaims itself to be the eye of "a little god, four-cornered." By overstating its qualities, and by taking itself so seriously as to deify itself, it begins to lose its creds.

But then as the listener is beginning to falter from too much truth telling, the mirror jolts the narrative to what it actually does. It habitually renders the color of the opposite wall that has speckles on it. And it avers that it has concentrated so long on that wall that it feels that object might be part of its own heart.

The listener/reader can then understand a mirror with heart might actually tend to exaggerate and even take on some tinge of human emotion, even though it is likely that a mirror's heart would toil quite differently from the heart of a human being.

The mirror confesses that as the objects confront it, as these "faces" and "darkness" come and go, they effect a flicker that would no doubt agitate the mirror's sensibilities, regardless of how objective and truthful the mirror remains in human terms.

Second Versagraph: Now a Metaphoric Lake

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.

Reading a poem can deliver the reader into a state of "narrosis"—a state once rendered by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." A reader must allow himself/herself to believe, if only temporarily, what the narrative is saying.

It is with this "poetic faith" that listener/reader must accept the claim that the "mirror" has now become a "lake." The dramatic effect is all important here in order to have the woman bending over the water to continue that search for herself.

The woman hopes to find "what she really is," according to the mirror/lake. While the mirror might believe that the woman is searching for her real self, readers will grasp immediately that her obsession centers on her desire to hold on to her youth.

The mirror/lake then ridicules the woman for wanting to believe "those liars", that is, "the candles or the moon," whose lighting can be deceptive, filling those facial wrinkles, allowing her to believe that she does not look as old as she really does in the full light of day.

The mirror/lake has come to understand how important it is to the woman, despite her agitated reaction as she looks into that aging face. While it might expect gratitude for its faithful reporting, it does not seem to get that thankfulness. from the woman.

Yet despite not being thanked for its service, the mirror/lake takes satisfaction in knowing how important it has become to the woman. After all, she looks into the mirror/lake every day, no doubt, many times a day. Such attention cannot be interpreted any other way by the mirror: it is convinced of its vital role in the woman's daily life.

As the woman depends on the mirror to report her aging development, the mirror/lake has come to depend of the woman's presence before it. It knows that it will be "her face" that will "replace[ ] the darkness" every morning.

It knows that whatever the woman takes away from its reflection every morning has become such an internal part of her life that it can count on her being there. It will never be alone but will continue to report its findings, objectively and truthfully.

The mirror/lake's final statement is one of the most profound statements to ultimatize a poem:

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Plath's genius in fashioning a mirror that morphs into a lake allowed her to create these marvelous two final lines of her magnificent poem. If Sylvia Plath had produce nothing more than this poem, she would likely have become the great voice she is as a major twentieth-century poet.

No one can deny that a mirror becoming a lake is stretch of the imagination, until that final two line sentence hits one. The genius of those lines then adjusts the entire poem, making it fit the natural world without one extraneous thought or word. The poem's masterful statement rocks the world of literary studies.

Sylvia Plath's Grave

Source

Favorite Plath Poem?

Of the following titles by the poet Sylvia Plath, which one do you especially like?

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© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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