Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poems are often reflective pieces of writing, and on occasion they have considered actual reflections – mirrors and mirror-images and the like. Below, we’ve selected ten of the finest poems about mirrors and reflections.
William Shakespeare, ‘Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest’. One of the earliest sonnets in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence – it’s third in the sequence, in fact – ‘Look in thy Glass’ sees Shakespeare trying to convince the Fair Youth to get married and have children, so as to multiply and preserve his own beauty. Appealing to the Youth’s own high self-regard, he begins by directing the beautiful young man to look in his mirror at his own lovely face:
Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Click on the link above to read the full poem.
Walt Whitman, ‘A Hand-Mirror’.
Hold it up sternly! See this it sends back! (Who is it? Is it you?)
Outside fair costume – within, ashes and filth,
No more a flashing eye – no more a sonorous voice
or springy step …
What do you see when you look in the mirror? In this poem, America’s nineteenth-century pioneer of free verse discusses how the mirror can throw back some unpleasant realities …
Christina Rossetti, ‘Passing and Glassing’.
All things that pass
Are woman’s looking-glass;
They show her how her bloom must fade,
And she herself be laid
With withered roses in the shade …
In this poem, the great Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-94) describes how the passing of time and the fact that ‘all things must pass’ is particularly galling for women, since it reminds them how their beauty must fade. The whole world, in a sense, is a mirror holding up a woman’s transient beauty to her.
Thomas Hardy, ‘I Look into my Glass’.
I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”’
In this poem, Hardy (1840-1928) looks into his mirror and laments the fact that, whilst he remains young at heart and with a young man’s passion and romanticism, his body hasn’t aged as well …
Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Looking-Glass River’. As well as writing Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) also wrote the perennially popular A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), a collection of poems for younger readers including this lovely poem about gazing into the reflective waters of the river:
We can see our coloured faces
Floating on the shaken pool
Down in cool places,
Dim and very cool …
Mary Coleridge, ‘The Other Side of a Mirror’.
I sat before my glass one day,
And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
That erst were found reflected there –
The vision of a woman, wild
With more than womanly despair …
In this poem, the great-grand-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes a speaker’s confrontation of a strange image in her mirror – an image which is some dark version of herself, possessed of ‘womanly despair’…
H. D., ‘The Pool’. To be honest, this poem doesn’t mention mirrors, and may not even be about reflections. But reflection is one of the interpretations of the poem that have been proposed – namely, that the short imagist masterpiece ‘The Pool’ describes the poet coming face-to-face with her own mirror-image in the surface of the water. A cryptic imagist poem thus becomes a poem about ‘self-reflection’ in both senses.
Elizabeth Bishop, ‘To Be Written on the Mirror in Whitewash’. Like Plath’s mirror poem below, this (altogether shorter) poem is spoken by the mirror itself, announcing that it stands between the spectator and their eyes and ‘collects no interest’. The shortest poem on this list, and a nice companion-piece to Plath’s.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Mirrors’. Jennings (1926-2001) deserves a wider readership than she currently enjoys. In this short poem, she uses the image of a mirror at a party, throwing back at her the half-familiar sight of her own self, as a way of pondering the relationship between love and self-love.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Mirror’. 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. But for Plath, the mirror doesn’t merely reflect: it somehow sees people, too.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.