Mirror by Sylvia Plath: Poem Summary & Analysis

Mirror by Sylvia Plath

Introduction:

Mirror is a free verse written by the American poet Sylvia Plath. The poem is written from the perspectives of two entities: a mirror and a lake, and the piece stands for the ideas of honesty, truth, and neutrality. Sylvia Plath chooses a simple everyday object, ‘a mirror’ in her poem and puts perspective to it by assuming its voice and expressing things one would barely think of. By using a mirror as the speaker of the poem, she explores the life of a woman as she grows old from an outward perspective. Mirror is a truly unusual and unique piece as it attempts to present truth about the self, unhindered even by personal conceptions.

Sylvia Plath was a famous poet of the 1950’s and 60’s. She was unfortunately riddled with mental agony which is often reflected in her poetry. She was one of the pioneers in the genre of self-exploration and self-discovery. The poetess suffered from clinical depression and attempted suicide several times, succeeding in 1963 at the age of 30. It is unclear when this poem was written, but it is alleged that it was around 1961, at a time when the poet had undergone much emotional turmoil and had also produced a number of works including her only novel ‘The Bell Jar.’ The poem was published in 1971 as a part of the anthology ‘Crossing the Water.’

Theme:

The theme of the poem is that of truth and its effects. It explores how sometimes truth can cause agony. It is imperative to read between the lines of the poem to fully grasp its idea. We will talk here more about the feelings conveyed in the poem.

In the first stanza, the mirror is represented as a truthful object. It faces the pink wall with spots most of its time. So we see a sense of loneliness in the mirror. The mirror feel that the wall is a part of itself. This shows an acceptance of that loneliness and even affection towards it. The mirror is presented as so very forlorn that it clings to the wall and its loneliness, and doesn’t like it flickering with shadows and faces. It has developed a liking to it.

The second stanza explores the effects of truth. It is a common feeling that truth and honesty are the best policy, but in this situation, we discover the complex dilemma where truth is disagreeable. The poet shows that it is not necessary to always know the truth, and upholds the idea ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ We see a woman, dissatisfied by her reflection in the mirror saddened by her image. The lake (representing a mirror) calls the candles and the moon liars as they do not show the woman her true self. They appease her with falsities, whereas the mirror shows her the truth. This is why the mirror considers himself a superior friend. The mirror here is used as a symbol to procreate the poet’s own emotions and states. The emotion of self-hatred is explored here. There is an impending question in the poem: is it better to know the truth even when it is dissatisfying?

Technical aspects:

Free Verse: The poem is a free verse, in that it has no rhyme scheme. It is further unbound by any of the formal metres for rhythm.

Symmetry: The poem is divided into two stanzas and each stanza has nine lines each. Also, both stanzas have seven sentences each. This forms for the symmetry in the structure and composition of the poem. Although it is a free verse, there is a solid structure to the poem. There is an excessive use of stops in the form of commas and periods instead of enjambment, which suggests clarity and makes the poem appear more like a prose.

Figures of speech:

A. Personification: The entire poem is a personification, as the mirror, an inanimate object speaks in the first person and describes itself like a human, possessed of human virtues.

B. Comparisons: The phrase ‘Now I am a lake’ forms a good example of a metaphor, whereas the last line has the words ‘like a terrible fish’ forming a simile where old-age is compared to a fish.

C. Repetition: Repetition is used strategically by the poet at the end of each stanza giving it a ‘trailing’ effect to represent continuity. The flickering of the pink wall ‘over and over’ and the ageing of the woman ‘day by day’ are the examples of this.

Summary and Explanation of the Poem Mirror:

The poem is divided into two stanzas with the first one establishing the nature of the mirror as truthful, honest and impartial. Whereas, the second concentrates on the life of a woman where the mirror assumes the role of a lake. In the first stanza the mirror tells us about itself and describes its experiences: what it has seen and what it does most of the time. The second stanza of the poem looks at a woman through the eyes of the mirror as a lake and describes her life and how she is slowly growing towards old age. The central idea of the poem lies not so much in the words of the poem as in what they represent.

First Stanza:

“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.

The mirror is presented in the first stanza as shiny (silver), exact and non-judgmental. It presents everything as it is without any interpolation of its own. The mirror is not driven by likes and dislikes, but is bluntly truthful. It calls itself ‘the eye of a little god.’ This is because the mirror is impartial like a deity and moreover it shows people their true selves like a god who assists us in the discovery of our true nature. It is thus highly idealised in the poem. The mirror here stands as a symbol of unsullied truth and honesty.

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 we see the interaction of the mirror with the exterior. It keeps looking at the opposite wall which is pink and has spots on it. The mirror also says that the wall has become a part of its heart and that it doesn’t like being separated from it. The phrase ‘part of my heart’ is interesting to note here. On one hand the mirror is shown almost emotionless, governed only by truth, but on the other hand it is also shown to have a heart and despite being “unmisted by love or dislike”, as stated in the earlier lines, it shows a shred of affection. Along with the feeling of loneliness mentioned earlier, we also witness the mirror’s cainophobia (fear of change or novelty).

It can also be argued that the mirror is used as a conduit by the poet to express herself. The poet ‘swallows whatever she sees’, that is, adopts any mode of thinking projected towards her in an attempt to fit in. And in this she has lost her true self. In this sense she is like the mirror. This may perhaps be the reason why we have such an unusual speaker, ‘a mirror’ as the voice of the poem.

Second Stanza:

“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.”

Next we see the lake as a mirror. A woman is shown looking at her reflection in the lake. Finding it disagreeable she turns away in sadness. The lake, being a kind of mirror, is truthful as well. It shows the woman exactly as she is, which is disagreeable to her. This blunt honesty of the lake-mirror and her own unpleasant state is the reason for her sadness. The woman is becoming old now, but she used to be young and beautiful once. She mourns the loss of her youth and beauty every time she sees her reflection in the lake. Thus, the idea of ‘truth causing agony’ is explored in the poem and is the central idea or theme.

The poem can be said to be a comment on the struggle of ageing. Old age is inescapable, but the idea of ageing is not received well by everyone. The poet here has represented the same sentiment. The woman looks at old age as a corruption and degradation of herself from what she used to be. Plath was herself riddled with such ideas. In her semi-autobiographical work, ‘The Bell Jar’ we see her trying to establish her role in life and struggling with it. A lack of self-esteem and self-acceptance of the woman are shown in the poem. The poem ‘Mirror’ is a complex aggregate in verse form of truth, self-inspection, the problem of ageing, and inner turmoil.