Analysis of Poem "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath

Updated on June 8, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath | Source

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 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.

As a teenager, she wrote in her journal:

"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, later:

"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."

"Mirror" is an exploration of this uncertain self and was probably influenced by an earlier poem by the poet James Merrill by the same title.

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.

"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.

What Are the Literary Elements Used in "Mirror"?

"Mirror" consists of two stanzas that reflect each other, that are mirror images you could say, and that contain no obvious end rhymes or steady beat. Noting this, we can suggest with confidence that there is no closure, certainty or order in the stylistic choices the author has made, features that are perhaps reflective of her emotional state.

Rhyme tends to secure the lines and 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, that the text almost resembles dialogue from a play.

Personification

"Mirror" is a personification poem. That is, the poet has given the mirror a first-person voice. So the poem begins:

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

This is the mirror speaking. It is direct, objective and open. It has 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 a sense, Plath is asking the same question, but she does not receive a flattering answer.

Metaphor

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) the poet uses metaphor again, as the mirror becomes deep, reflective water.

Simile

The final few words (like a terrible fish) constitute a simile.

Analysis of 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 picks up its 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 and 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 whole images instantly, like a creature.

What Does the Poet Mean by "unmisted by love and dislike?"

The next line, too, emphasizes the savage nondiscriminatory nature of the mirror. 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."

Lines 4-6

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 of truthfulness which allows the mirror to declare itself as the eye of a little god; an all seeing minor deity holding disproportionate power over its subjects.

To strengthen its position within the room, the house, and the host's mind, it does little but "meditate on the opposite wall." Like some open-eyed, staring sage, the mirror sits contemplatively.

Lines 7-9

The wall is pink, speckled, 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?

Analysis of Second Stanza

Whereas the first stanza concentrates on the exact truthfulness of the mirror and its ability to reflect precisely, the second stanza sees a transition: the mirror becomes a liquid, it gains depth and a different dimension.

Lines 10-12

With god-like, medium-shifting power, the mirror becomes a lake. 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 to see the reflection in the water.

Seeing her reflection, the woman is uncertain of herself and needs to find out who she really is. But can a person truly find out who they are by merely 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 because it's a deceptively romantic way of looking at things, and the moon, likewise, governs only madness and the haunting of the blood.

The woman realizes that she can't dwell on the past.

Lines 13-15

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 because the mirror is happy that it has done its job of faithful reflection and feels rewarded.

But the woman is clearly upset because the past holds such powerful memories, not all of them 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 traditional stories often pan out.

Lines 16-18

The mirror believes it is important to the woman, and so it appears relentlessly. The woman looks at herself in the mirror 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 conveys through her poem. The innocent, romantic, crazy girl floats lifeless in the water. And out of her there rises, from the (emotional) depths, a hagfish, a monstrosity.

Why Was the Poem "Mirror" Written?

While it is impossible to say exactly why Plath wrote "Mirror," there's no reason to believe her motive for writing this poem was any different from that of her other poems: to express abstract emotions and a state of mind that cannot easily be captured in prose.

While "Mirror," written in 1961, just two years before the poet's suicide, likely contains many autobiographical elements that have to do with her difficult life, the poem has merit beyond a mere confessional. It is a compelling work of art, and a remarkable piece of literature.

"Mirror" was not published for another 10 years after Plath's death, when it appeared in Plath's book Crossing the Water, published by Ted Hughes posthumously.

Reading of "Mirror" by Sylvia Plath (Video)

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Andrew Spacey

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