by Sylvia Plath
Stanza by stanza explanation with Questions and Answers for the poem included in the CHSE +2 Alternative English book ‘Approaches to English – II’.
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About the poet
Sylvia Plath (1932 -1963) had a short and sorrowful life. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts. The nervous breakdown and depression that plagued Plath all her life perhaps came from her father, Otto Plath, who was a man given to panic, and prejudice. Sylvia had a very creative mind, but, at the same time, it became a whirlpool of intense emotions that caused extreme swings of mood and suicidal tendencies. Sylvia wrote in a new style that was based on autobiographical confessions. She married Ted Hughes, another prolific writer, but the marriage ended in divorce after she discovered that Ted was having an affair with Assia, a very beautiful woman. After the divorce, Sylvia’s mental torment worsened until she took her own life in 1963.
Among her great works are ‘The Colossus and Other Poems, Ariel, and The Bell Jar. Reading Plath’s poems and relating them to her life makes one very sad. Sylvia Plath won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously.
Stanza by Stanza explanation of the poem
This deeply moving poem was written in 1864. It is a short two-stanza poem that bristles with feelings of loss, resignation, and doom.
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.
The poet metaphorically refers to the mirror. Here, the mirror becomes the speaker. She says that she is a very impartial, truthful, and accurate medium that absorbs anything that falls on it, and gives out the image very truthfully, with no prejudice. The mirror, says she has four corners, and likens itself as the eyes of the God. Such allusion to God is obviously due to the fact that the mirror accepts every image that falls on it with no fear or favour, and reflects it to the truest detail.
When there is no object in its front, the mirror just looks at the wall in front, passively, and without any emotion. The wall is pink, and it has small marks on its body. During the day, the wall brightens up, and as the dusk nears, it becomes hazy. In the night, it becomes black. This cycle of brightness to darkness continues endlessly.
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 mirror begins to speak again. She likens herself to a lake, where a woman has been coming to collect water for ages. She was a child when she first came to the lake. From that day, she has been coming here every day. When she looks down to collect water, she gets to see a reflection of her face. She looks at her keenly. The reflection is a true reproduction of her facial appearance. She is glad to see it, because it is true and honest. It does not hide anything. There is no intention to deceive her. On the contrary, when she sees her face in candle light, or in moonlight, the face looks deceptively more charming. The candle and the moon conceal some features of her face, particularly those that are associated with ageing.
No doubt, discovering the degeneration of one’s face with age is not a very pleasant feeling. The woman who comes to collect water from feels sad the deterioration of her beauty with the passing years. Her eyes well up with grief. Her hands tremble. Nevertheless, the woman is not upset with the lake. Rather her loyalty to the lake increases. She comes to the lake each morning to see the reflection of her face, and ponder. The grief in her face is palpable. The inexorable decline of her beauty from her adolescence to her dotage is irreversible. She knows this. Like a dreadful fish, the claw of time rises to grip her, but she is undone.
Questions for discussion
1. Who is the speaker of the poem?
Answer – Sylvia Plath is the speaker of the poem.
2. What are the two things that the mirror in the poem reflects?
Answer – The speaker underscores the fact that no amount of change to arrest or reverse the prognosis of a person’s appearance. One can only effect cosmetic changes to one’s appearance. The mirror or the lake from which she collects water daily show this hard reality of life of creatures on earth.
The other idea is gracefully accepting the deterioration of look as an important milestone in life’s journey can leaded to bliss and contentment.
3. Why is the mirror called the “eye of a little god?”
Answer – God never deceives or misleads. He is ‘truthful’ to all living beings. Similarly, the mirror reflects the image truthfully without any prejudice. This is why the speaker likens the mirror to little god.
4. Why are the candles and the moon called ‘liars’?
Answer – In candle light or under moonlight, an object looks deceptively beautiful. The dull golden light rays accentuate the visual appeal of a human’s face, hiding the signs of ageing, and decay. So, the speaker calls the two sources of light ‘liars’.
5. How does the woman react to her reflection in the lake?
Answer – The woman gazes into her image with a feeling of equanimity, composure, and a sense of stoicism. Far from making her distraught, the reflection makes her feel happy.
6. Would our view of the ageing woman be different if she, instead of the mirror, had narrated the story?
Answer – Looking into the mirror made the woman thoughtful as she reminisced about her bygone years of prime youth. The mirror triggered her philosophical thoughts of the way human traverse their life’s journey. Without the mirror, such evocative ideas would not have surfaced and the poem would have been a sterile composition.
7. Here the poet uses at least three of the poetic devices : personification, metaphor, and simile. Identify the lines where these figures of speech are used.
i) Personification – It is a poem totally based on personification. The ‘Mirror’ speaks like the first person. It is apparent from the very first line.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Here, ‘I’ is the mirror.
ii) Metaphor – The mirrors avers it in the first paragraph. The following lines are the testimony.
I am not cruel, only truthful,
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
So the mirror becomes the eye of a little god, in a metaphoric sense. Later, the poem reads;
Now I am a lake
The lake becomes a mass of clear water that reflects any object faithfully.
iii) Simile – The final few words (like a terrible fish) constitute a simile.
8. “and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.’ What is the significance of the image of “a terrible fish” here?
Answer – The woman no longer gets to see her youthful charming face in the water. Instead, she sees her face scarred by age and the tribulations of life. Like a terrible fish makes you a bit frightful, thinking about the role of water makes her feel somewhat frightened.
9. Do you agree that the mirror in this poem reflects more than mere images? How so?
Answer – The mirror shows not only the images, but also the deterioration of charm that occurs with the passage of time.
10. Notice that the the first stanza of the poem begins with “I am silver and exact”, and the second stanza begins with “Now I am a lake”. Do these two autobiographical statements of the mirror contradict each other? If so, how are they reconciled in the poem?
Answer – The two encounters with first the mirror, and then the lake waters fuel similar feelings in the speaker’s mind. She comes to terms with her withered look with ease and sagacity. Neither of the two make her despondent or unhappy.
1. Write an appreciation of the poem “Mirror”, beginning with a statement of the theme and (then proceeding to analyse the poem by lines along with your views regarding their communicative value (=how effectively the lines with their images and other poetic devices, if any, communicate an idea). The conclusion would sum up the salient features of the poem and end with your general assessment of the poem.
Answer – Sylvia Plath wants to express her thoughts about the hard realities of this mundane world. She does it with aplomb by speaking in the garb of an ordinary mirror hung from the wall. The mirror acts like a ruthless leveler towards those who love flying in the world of fantasy, and surreal existence in this world. Nature has its own ways to act like a mirror. The waters of a lake present the most authentic reflection of an object. No amount of pleading or deception can bypass the rigor of water’s ability to show the true look of an object. Ms. Plath looks at life rather prosaically, and wants to drive home the philosophical truth that time is the most powerful destroyer of everything in this world. No clout, no power, and no wealth can enable a living being or an object to escape the jaws of gradual decay, and death. The poem acts like a powerful but sober reminder to those arrogant individuals who dream of timeless luxury and life span. It’s an apt sermon to all of us.
2. Basing on what you know of the relationship between the Mirror and the Wall in the poem, write a dialogue between them on the subject of the world around them.
Answer – Mirror : My dear wall, I have been seeing you for the last 30 years – from the day I was ushered into this room and hung in the wall opposite to you. Tell me, how long have you been standing here like this.
Wall : My dear mirror, You see me unceasingly, but I don’t have eyes and I have no idea how you look.
Mirror : Don’t mind, my dear Wall. I am no great beauty, — just a piece of glass with some mercury coat behind my back. But, I am very honest. My job is to show the true appearance of whoever stands before me. In this regard, I don’t care for the emperor even.
Wall : I know that very well. People adore you, but ignore the hardship I endure to take the load of the roof.