- Read the Poem ‘Mirror by Sylvia Plath’
- Summary of the poem
- Line-by-Line Analysis of ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
- Literary Devices in the poem ‘Mirror’
- An Analytical Essay on ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
- Study Guide for the poem ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
- Scholarly Articles on the poem ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
Read the Poem ‘Mirror by Sylvia Plath’
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.
Summary of the poem
Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror” explores the theme of identity and self-perception through the perspective of a mirror. The poem describes the mirror’s constant and unrelenting gaze, claiming to be a “silver and exact” reflection of reality. The mirror reflects the woman’s face each morning and observes her tears and agitation of hands in response to her reflection. The woman searches beyond the mirror’s surface for something deeper and more meaningful, but the mirror only reflects what it sees. The poem concludes with the woman recognising her own mortality and the passage of time, as an old woman “rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.” Overall, the poem suggests the difficulty of truly knowing oneself and the importance of self-reflection and introspection in understanding one’s identity.
Line-by-Line Analysis of ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
"I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions."
The mirror introduces itself, personified as a self-aware and objective observer. It claims to have no biases or judgments, existing only to reflect what it sees.
"Whatever I see, I swallow immediately. Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike."
The mirror emphasises its neutrality and impartiality, claiming to reflect what it sees without any emotional attachment or bias.
"I am not cruel, only truthful, The eye of a little god, four-cornered."
The mirror insists that it is not cruel but truthful, comparing itself to a god-like entity that sees everything from all angles. This refers to the religious belief of god being all-knowing and from whom, nothing can be hidden.
"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."
The mirror describes its usual view of the world, which is a pink, speckled wall. This suggests that the mirror spends much of its time reflecting on its own existence and contemplating the world around it. The mirror’s long and contemplative gaze at the pink wall suggests that it has become deeply ingrained in the mirror’s own consciousness.
"But it flickers. Faces and darkness separate us over and over."
The mirror’s reflection of the pink wall is not constant, but rather, is interrupted by different faces and other images. This suggests that the mirror is not in complete control of what it reflects, and that its neutrality can be disrupted by external influences.
"Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me, Searching my reaches for what she really is."
The mirror changes metaphors, now describing itself as a lake that a woman is bending over to see her reflection. This suggests that the mirror is capable of reflecting not only physical appearances, but also deeper aspects of the self.
"Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon."
The woman in the poem turns away from the mirror to other sources of light to see herself, suggesting that she is seeking something beyond what the mirror can offer.
"I see her back, and reflect it faithfully."
The mirror reflects the woman’s back, indicating that it is not capable of showing her true self, but only a physical representation of herself.
"She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands."
The woman’s reaction to her reflection in the mirror suggests that she is not happy with what she sees and is experiencing strong emotions as a result.
"I am important to her. She comes and goes."
Despite the woman’s apparent dissatisfaction with what she sees in the mirror, she continues to return to it, suggesting that the mirror remains an important part of her self-perception.
"Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness."
The mirror’s final line suggests that the woman’s reflection in the mirror is an essential part of her daily routine and sense of self, and that the mirror itself is a constant presence in her life.
"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 last stanza of “Mirror” reveals the central metaphor of the poem: the mirror as a body of water, reflecting and distorting the image of the woman who looks into it. The use of the metaphor implies that the woman’s identity is fluid and constantly changing, just as the reflection in a body of water changes with the tides and weather. The first line suggests that the mirror has absorbed and consumed the woman’s younger self, leaving only the aging woman to face her reflection. The second line describes the woman’s reflection as a “terrible fish,” an image that conveys both the fear and fascination the woman feels toward her own reflection. The metaphorical fish suggests a sense of danger or discomfort, while also alluding to the notion of “fish-eye” distortion in mirrors, which creates a warped and distorted reflection. The final line of the poem implies that this terrible fish rises up to confront the woman each day, suggesting the ongoing struggle between the woman’s changing identity and her fear of mortality.
Literary Devices in the poem ‘Mirror’
The mirror is personified as a self-aware and objective observer, claiming to have no biases or judgments, existing only to reflect what it sees. The mirror is also described as having its own consciousness and being capable of meditating and thinking.
Plath uses the metaphor of a “lake” to describe the mirror, suggesting that the mirror is capable of reflecting not only physical appearances, but also deeper aspects of the self. Plath also uses the metaphor of the “liars” – candles or the moon – to describe the woman’s search for something beyond the mirror’s reflection.
The poem is filled with vivid imagery, such as the description of the “pink, speckled” wall that the mirror usually reflects. This creates a visual image in the reader’s mind and emphasizes the importance of the mirror’s constant and contemplative gaze. Other examples of imagery include the reflection of the woman’s face each morning and the woman’s tears and agitation of hands in response to her reflection.
The mirror itself can be seen as a symbol for self-reflection and introspection, highlighting the importance of how one sees themselves. The “liars” – candles or the moon – can also be seen as symbols for false or incomplete perceptions of the self.
The use of repetition, such as the repetition of the word “over” in the line “Faces and darkness separate us over and over,” emphasizes the repetitive and cyclical nature of the mirror’s reflections and the woman’s search for her true self.
The reference to “liars” in the poem can be seen as an allusion to the theme of deceit and false appearances, which is a common motif in Plath’s work.
An Analytical Essay on ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
‘Mirror’ is a poem based on the idea of reflection, both at the outward and the inward self, in which Plath personifies a mirror as the speaking voice to best articulate the theme of self-exploration. There are two levels of perspective that separate the poem in two stanzas which are of similar length – the first being seen with the physical feature and the second being seen through the psychic lens of the woman mirrored on the lake. Through these two levels of life, Plath designs an illustration of the unadulterated and unmarred nature of the truth, as well as commenting on time and how it surfaces forward ‘like terrible fish’.
The obtrusively direct beginning of the poem is deliberately put on by Plath to heighten the characterisation of her personified object, that is, the mirror which is forward, objective and open. The use of first-person enables readers to truly view the mirror as a human object, which has no ‘preconceptions’ and is ‘unmisted by love or dislike’. The mirror is not only unadulterated in its way of showing the reality, but it is also dispassionate and non-discriminatory. The use of Plath’s diction is also very specific as it brings out images of consumption, where the mirror admits to ‘swallow things as it is’, presenting the reality as an item of consumption. The mirror then metaphorically alludes to itself as a small deity, which reinforces the idea of complete and utter truthfulness where we cannot hide anything from God, who knows everything. The mirror, likewise, is raw and pure in its portrayal of the truth with no layers of fabrication and yet, it understands that truth can be considered vindictive sometimes, and thus assures that it is not ‘cruel, only truthful’. Plath, however, still paints her poem with a certain level of poignancy in which she allows the mirror to be intimate with the wall opposite it – which is made to be feminine as it is painted with the colour ‘pink’ and has ‘little speckles on it – as the mirror meditates on it, calling it a ‘part of my heart’. However, this relationship is broken down and disturbed when the room is darkened by night or something or someone moves in between them, portraying a loss of intimacy.
The next stanza sees a sudden change as the mirror transforms into a lake, not hard but exact , because while it still echoes the mirror’s character it receives her tears and her agitated heart, in which it shows the whole truth. Plath, here, brings in a woman who seeks this truth and which the lake believes to ‘reflect faithfully’. Yet, the woman turns to ‘the candles or the moon’ which the lake calls out as ‘liars’ as these only present the romanticised and half-hidden versions of the reality. But, the woman returns and Plath echoes on how the truth can be ‘cruel’ where she is seen ‘rewarding’ the lake with ‘tears and an agitation of hands’ as the word ‘reward’ – an inevitable and harsh reality where youth is consumed by the terrible upsurge of time. Here, Plath comments on time and aging, which she personally had a profound distaste of as she had never wanted to grow up, where the woman ‘drowns’ the young girl in her, as the ‘old woman’ slowly surfaces upwards ‘like terrible fish’ – using a simile to produce time as an unwelcome marine creature.
Plath’s use of imagery is very picturesque through the use of colours, metaphors and characterisation, where in the second and last stanza, we can almost visually see the woman ‘bend(ing)’ to ‘search for (the lake’s) reaches’. This brings out how we need to be close to our emotions and the truth to understand ourselves, and to turn back on the fabricated reality. Like the mirror merging seamlessly with the lake, Plath allegorises how our two personalities of the physical and spiritual need to merge seamlessly by looking at the ‘cruel’ reality. Plath makes use of free verse to give a spontaneous rhythm to her truly abstract poem, along with the use of limited enjambment to produce a strict and direct tone of voice for the mirror and the lake, which are both inanimate and yet, animate within ourselves the true sense of reality that we often hide from.
Study Guide for the poem ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
Understanding the speaker
- Who is the speaker in the poem? What is their relationship to the mirror?
- How does the speaker feel about their reflection?
Analysing the ‘mirror’
- What is the mirror’s personality like?
- How does the mirror perceive the world around it?
- What does it mean when the mirror says it is “silver and exact”?
Interpreting the imagery
- What is the significance of the “pink, speckled wall” that the mirror usually reflects?
- What is the meaning behind the woman’s tears and agitation of hands in response to her reflection?
- What do the “liars” – candles or the moon – represent?
Exploring the themes
- What are the major themes of the poem?
- How does Plath use the mirror as a symbol for these themes?
- What do you think the poem is trying to say about identity and self-perception?
Examining the literary devices
- What literary devices does Plath use in the poem
- ? How do they contribute to the meaning and tone of the poem?
- What is the effect of the repetition, personification, and metaphors used in the poem?
Relating to Plath’s life and work
How does this poem relate to Plath’s other works and her life experiences? What do you think motivated her to write this poem?
How does “Mirror” compare to other poems that deal with similar themes, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot or “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost?
- What does the poem suggest about the relationship between appearance and reality?
- Is it possible to truly know oneself?
- What is the meaning of the final line, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish”?
- Write your own poem or reflection on the theme of self-perception, using the mirror as a symbol.
- How would you describe your own relationship with mirrors?
- What is your interpretation of the line “I am important to her. She comes and goes”?
- Research Plath’s life and works to gain a deeper understanding of her motivations and influences.
- Explore the feminist and psychological themes in her poetry and consider the impact of her legacy on contemporary poetry.
Scholarly Articles on the poem ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
Find a list of relevant scholarly articles on the poem to provide references and citations for your research or coursework.
- Axelrod, S. (2002). Sylvia Plath’s mirror: A reflection. Critical Insights: Sylvia Plath, 195-209.
- Bressler, C. E. (2011). Literary criticism: An introduction to theory and practice (5th ed.). Pearson.
- Butscher, E. (2003). Sylvia Plath: Method and madness. A&C Black.
- Cixous, H. (1986). Coming to writing and other essays. Harvard University Press.
- Davidson, R. M. (2005). Sylvia Plath and the Theater of Mourning. ABC-CLIO.
- Kroll, J. (2012). The Cambridge introduction to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge University Press.
- Lanier, D. J. (2006). Analyzing Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”. Bloom’s Literary Themes: Death and Dying, 67-82.
- Pollitt, K. (1998). The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Granta Books.
- Rollyson, C. G. (2003). Sylvia Plath: A biography. Ivan R. Dee.
- Stevenson, A. (2012). Mirror: A response to Sylvia Plath. The Explicator, 70(1), 29-31.