‘Mirror’: not the most famous of Sylvia Plath’s poem titles, perhaps, but a fine example of her ability to inhabit some other person, character, or – as here – object, and imbue it with a clear, commanding voice which reveals things about us, and what it is to be human. And, specifically here, what it is to be a woman. You can read ‘Mirror’ here before continuing to our analysis.
Written in free verse – ‘Mirror’ is unrhymed and has a largely irregular metre, with the line lengths varying a little from line to line – this is a poem, bordering on dramatic monologue, in which a mirror speaks to us, addressing the reader in a matter-of-fact tone, reflecting the flatness of its surface and its inability to do anything other than reflect back to us what it ‘sees’. In summary, the mirror tells us that it has ‘no preconceptions’: it is ‘exact’, with the implication that it simply shows us what it ‘sees’. This is not some hall of mirrors at a fairground, which deliberately distorts faces and body shapes: whatever we see when we look in the mirror is what the mirror was accurately and faithfully ‘swallowed’. It transmits whatever it receives. The mirror doesn’t care for us, either way: neither like nor dislike colours its reflections. It is ‘not cruel, only truthful’.
Towards the end of this first stanza, Plath starts to give us slightly more detail about how the mirror spends its days: with nothing to do all day and night but remain there, mounted on the wall, all it can do is look at the opposite wall (which is pink, with speckles: suggesting the blemished or imperfect skin of a person?) until it becomes ‘a part of my heart’. After all, the mirror has ‘swallowed’ up whatever it sees, including that pink wall.
But then, in that second stanza, we get a sudden development: ‘Now I am a lake’, Plath’s mirror tells us. Like some sort of shape-shifter, the literal glass mirror now becomes a figurative mirror: the surface of still water, reflecting the face of a woman bent over it. She is searching ‘for what she really is’. After she has gazed into the mirror of the lake, she turns to the moon and the candle, those ‘liars’. Why they are liars is not clear: the moon’s light is borrowed from the sun, of course, and, in effect, it is a sort of ‘mirror’ of the sun in that it reflects the sunlight at night. The candle is false because it is light that has to be generated through the burning of tallow. The lake’s surface, however, reflects the woman ‘faithfully’.
But the mirror of the lake is not there merely to give back the woman’s image: it ‘sees’ her. ‘I see her back’ is wonderfully ambiguous: although primarily it means that the lake sees the back of the woman as she turns to the moon or those candles, it also conveys the idea of reciprocity, with the lake looking back at the woman. Plath ends ‘Mirror’ with a terrifying vision of ageing, with each day showing less of the ‘young girl’ the woman was, and more and more of the ‘old woman’ she is turning into. Plath, who was greatly influenced by Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, knew about the triple-nature of the goddess in Graves’s book. The goddess is a young maiden or virgin, then a pregnant and fertile mother, and finally, an old hag. We see the transition of this woman here, with the moon – that key symbol for the white goddess – looming in the background, behind her.
Sylvia Plath wrote ‘Mirror’ on 23 October 1961. At the time, she was writing a poem a day: a product of a creative writing class (led by Robert Lowell, who helped her to develop her personal and ‘confessional’ style, at Boston in the late 1950s), Plath would overcome writer’s block/colygraphia by sitting down and writing a poem on a different theme or subject, if she had nothing more inspiring to write about. The day before she wrote ‘Mirror’, for instance, she had written ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’, the subject of which was suggested by her husband Ted Hughes (the moon and yew tree could be seen outside of Plath’s bedroom window at their house in Devon). ‘Mirror’ can be readily analysed as a poem, if not quite written to order, then written to a particular theme. The day before, she had written about whatever was outside of her window; on this day, she had written about something found in every hallway of every house in the country.
Plath was not the first person to write a poem in which a mirror speaks to us. Arguably, an old Anglo-Saxon riddle, which reads simply ‘I saw a woman sit alone’, invites the solution ‘mirror’. In the last analysis, ‘Mirror’ is a nice reflection (as it were) of the ways we ‘see’ ourselves, and how women are encouraged to observe their own appearance within the surface of the ‘mirror’. Self-image, and the slow but inevitable slide into old age and the loss of youthful looks, are, like that moon, lurking in the background.
About Sylvia Plath
The life – and death – of Sylvia Plath (1932-63) can sometimes appear to eclipse her poetic achievement, as well as her achievement in fiction (she wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, as well as a collection of short stories). But this is partly because so much of her work drew on her life for its subject-matter, especially her unflinching analysis of her own struggles with her mental health.
Born in the United States, Plath moved to England in the 1950s, where she met fellow aspiring poet Ted Hughes, whom she quickly married. (They chose the date of their wedding in 1956 – 16th June – in honour of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which takes place on that day in 1904.) Just one collection of Plath’s poetry, The Colossus (1960), appeared in her lifetime before she tragically took her own life in February 1963, during one of the coldest English winters on record. It was the publication of a posthumous collection, Ariel, in 1965 (edited by her widower, Ted Hughes) which really helped to ensure she was regarded as one of the greatest and most original voices in Anglophone poetry of the mid-twentieth century. Two further posthumous collections, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, followed in 1971.
Plath is often grouped with the ‘Confessional poets’ – a group of (mostly American) mid-twentieth-century poets whose work engages with the darker aspects of their own lives, with the focus frequently on the poet’s own struggles with mental health issues. Plath attended a creative writing class led by the poet who helped to initiate the Confessional movement, Robert Lowell, in the late 1950s. But it’s important not to overlook Plath’s affinities with earlier female poets, especially modernists like H. D. and Mina Loy, who often used mythical personae to write about their own lives.