Sunday, 13 October 2013

'The Mirror' - A Brief Interpretation of Plath's Poem

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
What ever you 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 a 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 beginning of 'The Mirror', which was written by Sylvia Plath two years before her suicide, is very straightforward, and its title immediately notifies the reader that it is about a mirror, and that the poem is written from the perspective of the mirror – this is the ‘I’. The mirror is personified, and it has ‘no preconceptions’ and nor is it misted ‘by love or dislike’. By telling us this, Plath is setting the scene and explaining that the mirror is completely objective in what it shows. It may have its own opinion (and this is suggested by the words ‘I swallow immediately’ – another bit of personification), but it certainly doesn’t present it – it is ‘only truthful’ and ‘not cruel’. However, this is a slight contradiction – surely it is cruel to tell an ugly person they are ugly? Or to point out the bad traits in people, when they are unable to change them?

The personification of the mirror presents the reader with a paradox – unlike most people, the mirror is unaffected by what it has seen in the past, and so is, in a way, more honest than the average person. We must remember that this is all from the mirror’s own perspective, and this self-appraisal could be seen as arrogance. Our dislike for the mirror is increased when it explains that it ‘swallows’ what we see. Unlike the word ‘reflect’ (which could be used instead), ‘swallow’ is rather ominous, and therefore the mirror becomes slightly scary and perhaps loathsome. The self-appraisal is continued when the mirror says that it is like ‘The eye of a little god.’ This, again, is rather arrogant, and possibly makes us dislike the mirror even more. It then says ‘four-cornered’, and the idea that a mirror is a four-cornered eye is, to me, rather frightening.

The mirror then goes on to explain that it ‘meditates on the opposite wall’ for the majority of its life, which suggests that it has become rather attached to it. This is highlighted by the line ‘I think it is a part of my heart’. We now begin to warm to the mirror slightly, and we feel sympathy for it. Our sympathy is increased by the line ‘But it flickers’ and ‘Faces and darkness separate us over and over.’ This is sad because the mirror is not able to see the opposite wall, which is possibly a metaphor for a lover.

The second stanza is very different from the first, and the narrator is now ‘a lake’. In this stanza, however, we meet a woman, presumably Sylvia Plath, and she is searching the lake for her reflection (‘searching my reaches’). Here the mirror/lake is presented as rather spiteful, referring to the moon and candles as ‘liars’ because they make people look more beautiful – the narrator is proud of its honesty.

Many people believe that the lake in the second stanza is meant to portray Ted Hughes. Sylvia Plath has spent so long with him in order to find out ‘what she really is’, but is unable to find out. She then ‘rewards’ Hughes ‘with tears and an agitation of hands’. This could be a metaphor for her long depression following her separation from Hughes. Again, Plath portrays the narrator (presumably Hughes) as arrogant and proud by writing ‘I am important to her. She comes and goes.’ In a way she is admitting that she ought to forget Hughes, but finds it hard to leave him, and continues to come and go. Finally, she writes ‘In me she has drowned a young girl’. Plath suggests that she has wasted her youth with Ted Hughes, and she is now ‘an old woman’. This theme is seen in many of Plath’s poems, and it is clear that she believes that she wasted many years with Hughes. Finally, the idea of the lake resurfaces with the line ‘like a terrible fish’. The contrast between the words ‘drowned’ and ‘rises’ symbolise the idea of losing youth and gaining age, which Plath appears to have experienced.

The poem ends rather abruptly, and leaves us feeling particularly melancholy. Plath, in just 18 lines has explored a huge amount – aging, truth, love, depression. By using the metaphor of the lake, she was able to subtly take a dig at Hughes, by presenting him as arrogant and proud, while presenting herself as his victim. The poem is also a way for Plath to say goodbye to her youth, which she believes that she has long lost, due to the time she spent with Hughes. Finally, and in a slightly funny way, she suggests that she now looks ‘like a terrible fish’ – lovely!

Also, please have a look at my two recreative poems of 'The Mirror':


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