Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1932, Sylvia Plath began her writing career at the age of eight, when the Boston Herald published one of her poems. Plath would go on to publish many more poems in her short life as well as other fiction and non-fiction. She died in 1963 at the age of thirty-three, when her lifelong battle with depression ended by Plath committing suicide. Plath was both, a celebrated and controversial writer. As, what has been termed a, “confessional poet,” truth, too bitter for some of her era, became in her later years, dark and sometimes graphic. One of her less controversial poems “Mirror” has been analyzed by many with varying results. It has been said that this poem is about self, and the pangs of growing old without being able to accept the inevitable, among other analyses: “To look into the glass is to look for oneself inside or as reflected on the surface of the mirror and to seek or discover oneself in the person (or non-person) of the mirror.” (Freedman Monster)
In “Mirror,” the mirror is the voice and lets the reader know that, what you see is what you get: “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions” (Plath line 1). Plath, being in the public eye, felt a certain amount of pressure and at first, looked to the mirror as a means of trying to convince herself of her significance; the real world can be a cruel place and the mirror made no judgments “Whatever I see I swallow immediately…” (line 2).
The mirror in the poem takes on some human characteristics, in that it is the speaker in the poem, and sees the person looking into it just as the person sees her self; the mirror does not decide whether or not to love her: “Whatever I see I swallow immediately Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike” (Plath lines 2-3). It is for her to decide if she is worthy of loving herself.
Some critics of Plath’s poetry have been judgmental to the point of disgraceful condemnation, such as in, Joyce Carol Oates essay on Plath, “The Death Throes of Romanticism”:
“The “I” of the poems is an artful construction, a tragic figure whose tragedy is classical, the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature—as in the poem “Mirror,” the eye of a little god who imagines itself without preconceptions, “unmisted by love or dislike.” This is the audacious hubris of tragedy; the inevitable reality-challenging statement of the participant in a dramatic action he does not know is “tragic.” He dies, and only we can see the purpose of his death—to illustrate the error of a personality who believed itself godlike.”
This assessment by Oates of “Mirror,” by which she is forming, not only an opinion of the poem, but launching an attack on Plath, is all based on two lines of the poem: I am not cruel, only truthful— The eye of a little god, four-cornered” (Plath 4-5). Is Oates saying that, Plath thinks of herself as a little four cornered god? Here is what writer Jeannine Johnson says about the same lines in her essay “An Overview of “Mirror”: “The mirror not only passively reflects an image but actively sees with “The eye of a little god, four-cornered.” Its “eye” differs from a human eye in that it is god-like and square or rectangular.”
The loneliness Plath felt at times, and the ups and downs of depression, are reflected in the mirror’s confession: “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 (lines 6-8). Written at a time when Plath and her husband, English poet, Ted Hughes, were experiencing marital problems; Plath felt alone, with a broken heart, and the darkness of her mood, and the women Hughes was spending time with, is represented in the poem: “…I think it is part of my heart. / But it flickers. / Faces and darkness separate us over and over” (lines 8-9).
In the second half of the poem the mirror is transformed into a lake, which reflects the aging face seeking knowledge of self. She has lived through the good and bad that life has to offer, and sees her self sinking into the darkness of death: “Now I am a lake. /A woman bends over me, / searching my reaches for what she really is” (lines 10-11). Here is what writer, Jeannine Johnson has to say, “The woman is not simply looking into the mirror to check her appearance: she is pursuing more profound information about her basic identity. She is particularly concerned with growing older, studying her face for evidence of aging” (Johnson overview screen).
Unable to find the truth of self she turns her back on the mirror and the lake: “Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon. I see her back, and reflect it faithfully” (lines 12-13). When she is unable to see her true reflection, the aging is not as evident. But aging is inevitable, and incapable of coming to terms with that, she is overcome by the ups, where hope resides, and downs, the hopelessness of depression, “She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands. / I am important to her. / She comes and goes” (lines 14-15).
When she wakes to the light of a new day, she thinks that maybe she posses spirit sufficient to face the truth of vanquished youth, but with each passing day, the mirror reveals her continued aging “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” (lines 16-18). She is horrified by aging, and Plath uses “…terrible fish” as a metaphor to describe her terror of becoming an old woman (line 18).
Growing old is something that we all must come to terms with, if we are lucky. It is unfortunate, not just for Plath’s family and friends, but for the world that she could not come to terms with life’s tribulations. It does seem an enormous venture, if one has a delicate sense of person, to continually be placing ones self in front of the mirror and watching yourself age: “One may picture this “great sacrifice,” the highest expression of will in divine nature, by imagining oneself before a mirror in which one’s image is reflected.” (Steiner Prayer)
Copyright © 2003, D L Ennis
William Freedman. The Monster in Plath’s ‘Mirror’. Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 108, No. 5, October, 1993, pp. 152-69. Gale Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism. The Gale Group, 1999. http://www.sylviaplath.de/plath/freedman.html
Jeannine Johnson. An overview of “Mirror.” Poetry for Students. Gale, 1997.
Joyce Carol Oates. Sylvia Plath Bio. Celestial Timepiece: A Joyce Carol Oates Home Page. http://www.sylviaplath.info/biography.html
Joyce Carol Oates. THE DEATH THROES OF ROMANTICISM:
The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/southerr/throes.html
Rudolf Steiner. Rudolf Steiner on the “Great Sacrifice”. The Lords Prayer. http://wn.elib.com/Steiner/Lectures/LorPry_index.html
Youliana Todorova. SYLVIA PLATH’S PARADISE – LUMINOUS AND FRIGHTENING. E-publishing LiterNet. http://liternet.bg/publish3/iutodorova/splat_en.htm