Thoughts on the Poem “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath

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‘Mirror’ appears like a relatively simple poem. However, in no way does it lack depth: narrated from the point of view of a personified mirror, we witness the coming and going of a woman who looks in and reacts bitterly to what she sees. What I found most stunning about this poem were the contrasts. We never know first-hand what the woman is thinking or experiencing, but the way Plath disrupts the calm perspective of the mirror makes the poem end on a note that is not just ominous, but also a moving glimpse into how the loss of youth may have a distressing impact on how we perceive ourselves.

Read the full poem below, followed by my thoughts on each line:

“Mirror” by Sylvia Plath

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.

My response

Stanza 1

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

The word ‘silver’ hints at the importance of the mirror to someone who possesses it. The short direct sentences also suggest that mirror, which is personified, is assured about who it is. It appears to give us a sense of its calm and unperturbed personality.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

The mirror seems to be efficient in what it does, a feeling that is heightened by the sibilance of ‘swallow’, ‘dislike’ and ‘unmisted’.

I am not cruel, only truthful ‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

The mirror’s balanced sentences seem to be a response to the reader or the person looking at it, who appears to have accused it of being cruel. How is it possible to describe itself as the eye of a little god? It could be assumed that the mirror has seen the effect it has on the person who looks in it.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

The liquid consonants here reflect the act of meditation. The repeated imagery of worship and prayer suggests that the mirror has wisdom, almost like a knowing sage or monk. Personally, this reminded me of the fairytale phrase ‘mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?’. The mirror has the power of reflecting the reality of what it ‘sees’ but it has no choice to do otherwise.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

The enjambment here reflects the long periods of isolation that the mirror experiences. The phrase ‘heart’ makes the mirror seem more vulnerable than before, while the caesura that introduces ‘but it flickers’ disrupts the restful tone of the first stanza.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

There is a sense of monotony in the cyclical observation of faces and darkness and the repetition of ‘over’. But as the reader it is possible to consider the complex connotations of this. Faces are distinct, often full of emotion. Darkness connotes a multitude of secrets and ambiguities.

Stanza 2

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

The metaphoric comparison of the mirror to the lake raises a number of questions. While it is presumably as still as a lake, the natural imagery also hints at more liveliness than the previous stanza. It has more depth, as the woman searches the mirror for not only her appearance but also the truth about herself.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

The mirror unwittingly lets on the superficial way the mysterious woman defines herself. By the candles or the moon, it is possible that her imperfections are smoothed out, and she can see herself in a romantic light.

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.

The juxtaposition of reward against the idea of tears and agitation hints to the reader about the tormented beholder of the mirror. The mirror appears pleased with her appearance, as she ‘replaces’ the darkness and ‘rewards’, but behind the focalisation of the mirror, the scene is an ominous one. The coming of each morning does not bring the usual connotations of renewal and hope, but a slow decay. Although the mirror does not seem to realise the woman’s bitterness at first, the final simile suggests it is perceptive to the bleak future that the woman sees. The reader is left with the unusually threatening image of old age as a terrible fish rising towards the woman. Plath draws on the lexis of marine life, something that would usually be considered relaxing and organic, but distorts it by using imagery that is predatory and conveys the dread of the woman, and her fear of inevitably losing her youth.

I looked into Plath’s works thanks to a wonderful recommendation from Little Life Theatre Blog. The structure and form of her poems stand out to me for how they create a poignant reading experience. What do you think of Plath’s poetry? I would love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

Keep reading and readjoicing,

Shreya

Categories: Reading

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