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.
In “Mirror” Sylvia Plath seems to be making a comment on women who are very fond of returning again and again to the mirror. Perhaps she is concerned about those who will be satisfied merely by how they appear, superficially. A number of people want to look good, and that is hardly something to be critical of. But one needs to go beyond one’s looks instead of being caught in their net and the poet is quite certain of that. The problem of more than half of mankind is that they live a life that is looks-centered rather than deeds-centered.
The mirror in the poem, who is the poem’s speaker, claims to be objective and impersonal. He says, “I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.” The poem therefore begins with a statement made by the mirror which portends to place it/him on a different plane as compared to human beings. He will later be compared to a little god. We humans are prejudiced and biased but a non-living thing like a mirror is not. As the poem advances, however, we find the Mirror becoming quite involved; its feelings expressed with a personal fervour for the wall in front of the one it hangs upon. It acquires a male voice and treats the wall as its feminine beloved, its object of admiration.
The woman in the poem, young in the beginning, begins to grow in age as the poem advances and that creates trouble for her because she had put all her eggs into the basket of her superficial looks. She had, it seems, forgotten that “youth grows spectre thin and dies”, and that she would also grow older with time. She grows annoyed when she begins to lose her looks and the mirror gets more and more annoyed with her for returning again and again to come between him and his beloved wall. The Mirror has drowned in itself the younger version of the woman and now keeps presenting her uglier, older, version which keeps popping up like an ugly fish.
In between the poem the mirror replaces itself with another reflector, a lake. The woman bends low to see her reflection in the lake taking the help of candles and the moon to see her reflection, maybe in an inferior light, to get the reassurance that she is still not ugly. She is like Narcissus, the hunter in Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own image in the lake and drowned in it as he could not look away from his good looks. Sylvia Plath is quite clearly writing against vanity.
Speaking against the tendency of some to take their looks too seriously, Plath uses a myth to bring about universality in what she says about the vanity of people who indulge too much in their looks. The fact that as the Mirror talks about the vanity of the woman, it displays a similar attitude in itself because it wants to keep watching the wall for its feminine beauty – it is pink with speckles – is significant. It is as though the Mirror is saying that even as one gets conscious about something wrong in one’s vanity, one promotes it in another. Vanity is quite an inescapable part of human existence.
The poem is a monologue in that it is told by a single speaker who ultimately becomes a character, using the first person singular form frequently, throughout the poem. In a poem of eighteen lines the word “I” is used ten times and “me” is used three times. At the face of it the “I” seems to come from a mild and humble persona, but then it grows into someone who is not as simple as he appears and even borders on being manipulative. Plath’s poem gives a new dimension to a poem set in a monologue. The speaker seems to border between a mirror and a man.
The poem is written in the narrative mode and the reflective (that which shows the thought process, not merely the reflection of a mirror) element is interspersed very subtly into the lines. The strength of the poem is the use of some very fascinating images made in the mirror’s telling, like, “Whatever you see I swallow immediately”. Only a poet of Plath’s merit can conceive an image of the mirror swallowing whatever it has reflected. The image of mirror’s being “unmisted by love or dislike” is also a novel way of suggesting the Mirror’s objectivity. The Mirror then compares itself with the “eye of a little god” giving to itself a superior status than the woman who returns to it frequently. The image of the candles and moon represented as liars is yet another innovative expression. Finally, the image of the fish, used to describe the woman’s declining looks, is a very powerful way of suggesting how her aging and fading looks make her pop up again and again in front of a mirror (like an ugly fish pops up out of water) to finally understand how ugly she has become.
© Lakshmi Raj Sharma