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Mirror by Sylvia Plath: Summary and Analysis

The Poem

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.

The lyric poem, Mirror, written in 1961 and published in 1971, in a collection entitled, “Crossing the Water” stands out for dexterously employing poetic vehicles like powerful language, unusual syntax and sharp imagery in reflecting the mounting uncertainties that the poet confronted in her real life.

Poem Background

The bitter reality of an advancing age coupled with the tedious duties of domestic life were factors, not readily accepted by Plath and naturally, poetry served to be the most appropriate medium for an unveiled expression of a fragmented heart. Plath’s attitude towards aging glaringly highlights her tremendous fear of isolation and eventually, a desperate search for self-identity. And these two factors piercingly expose the male dominated society to which she belonged. In this respect, her writing has often been said to contain feministic traits.

A Brief Summary

The main idea of the poem constitutes the poet’s raging attempts to tackle pressing issues connected with old age. Accordingly, the mirror and the lake are personified as they provide honest reflections and help her to review her state.

Critical Analysis

Stanza 1

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.

Analysis: The mirror being personified, goes on to describe its state and purpose – that it’s made of “silver” and does not entertain any “preconceptions”. The next few lines elaborate what he exactly seems to convey. The mirror devours (swallow) whatever it sees, and neither “love” for the person who stands before it, nor “dislike” plays a role in determining what it would reflect. Hence, “preconceptions” refer to any understanding the mirror might have with anyone, who would use it to see his image. However, it clarifies that in being exact it is not “cruel,” it is simply “truthful.” And ultimately, it compares itself to “The eye of a little god, four-cornered”, thereby implying that just as “the eye” observes everything, so too, nothing escapes the penetrating gaze of the mirror. Now, what constitutes the mirror’s chief occupation? It declares, how it thinks (meditate) about the opposite wall, its pink speckles and how the wall has gradually become a part of it. It is only when individuals come in-between the wall and itself, or when there is darkness, that its constant rapport with the wall breaks, making the latter to “flicker.”

Stanza 2

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.

Analysis: The second stanza ensues with an altered perspective of the mirror; it is now a lake that reflects the image of a woman, who “bends over” it to search for something more than her mere form. As she next turns to “the candles or the moon” the personified lake designates them as “liars”, thereby emphasizing how, due to diminished light, both imparts flawed reflections. The lake finally receives its reward, when the woman showers it with “tears” and “an agitation of hands”, thereby suggesting the extent to which she has been moved by her truthful image. Naturally, the lake is “important” to her, and she continues her habit of seeing herself daily. The last two lines epitomize the poet’s reigning problem – the fact that she’s aging day by day. Thus, the lake becomes a passive spectator of her increasing paleness, candidly defining her gradual breakdown from youth to old age. Her rusty form as such resembles a “terrible fish”.

Interpretation of the Themes

Self-Introspection

The “mirror,” in presenting an unbiased reflection, hints at the underlying urge of the poet to have a candid estimation about herself. The idea is more pronounced when the “mirror” becomes a “lake,” for the poet directly claims of how she searches its “reaches for what she really is.”

The Stigma of Aging

As the poet claims that the woman has “drowned a young girl” in it and that “an old woman/Rises” in her place, her grief, and resentment regarding her approaching years become pertinent.

Inner Conflict

The comparison of the woman’s “old age” to a “terrible fish” is an uncommon parallel that throws light on the poet’s bitter mental anguish concerning negativities like loss of beauty and youth that are associated with old age.

Verse Form

The poem is written in free verse.

Genre

Confessional poetry

Mood and Tone

Both the mood and tone of the poem are serious and sad since the subject matter concerns the utter reality of aging.

Diction

The poet uses tight, short sentences and phrases to build up images that are easily identifiable but simultaneously have deep meanings.

Literary Devices

Symbolism

  • The “mirror” stands for a medium of obtaining a straightforward view of oneself.
  • The “lake” symbolizes the steady passage of time that has made the poet age.
  • The “moon and candles” represent idle flatterers that dwell on dishonesty.
  • The “terrible fish” suggests the poet’s profound mental agony.

Imagery

  • In line 6, one can almost see the “mirror” contemplating about the “opposite wall.”
  • In line 8, the lake imagery aids the reader to mentally view the progression of the poet from a “young girl” to an “old woman.”

Figures of Speech

Personification

The “mirror,” “lake, “candles,” and the moon are given human attributes.

Allusion

Lines 10-11 allude to the mythical Greek figure “Narcissus” who fell in love with himself on seeing his reflection in the water.

Alliteration

In line 2, the repetition of “s” sound.

Metaphor

In line 5, the “mirror” is compared to a “little god.”

In line 12, the “mirror” calls the “moon” and “candles” liars.

Simile

In lines 17-18, the image of the aging woman is compared to a “terrible fish.”

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The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.
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