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I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

While "Sylvia" might sound a little bit like silver, we're pretty sure from this firstperson declaration that Plath isn't the speaker in this poem. Instead, we have to think back to the title: what is silver and exact? Well, a mirror! We know mirrors don't talk but that just makes us more curious about what this mirror is going to say. We know from looking at them that mirrors are silver and give an exact reflection of what is in front of them. The second part of the line is not so simple. This mirror is telling us it has no preconceptions. The mirror doesn't change what it shows you based on it's understanding of who you are, or whether you're having a bad day or a good day it just shows what it sees. So, while this mirror may be personified in the poem, it doesn't, like most people, let what it has seen before affect what it does in the present.

Line 2
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.

Now the personification becomes a little weirder. We can imagine a person who is exact, who has no preconceptions, but a person who swallows everything he sees now that's a stretch. To figure out this line, it helps to think of what mirrors do to everything they see they reflect it. Swallowing everything, then, is a metaphor for reflecting everything. The substitution of "swallowing" for "reflecting" makes this mirror seem human. It appears hungry to us, and a little unforgiving and scary. We certainly don't want to be swallowed by our mirrors. In terms of sound, the rhythm of this line swallows the reader right up; it's arranged to be sharp and deliberate, but reads like a riddle.

Line 3
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike

This line is giving us more information about how the mirror is swallowing what it sees, while also confirming what we already know from the first line: that the mirror is exact and has no preconceptions. The first part of this line isn't too complicated we know that mirrors reflect things just as they are. But then we get to the second part of the line, where we find out that whatever the mirror swallows is "unmisted by love or dislike." Unmisted is yet another metaphor; here it means unchanged, but it gives us an image of an actual mist that could be but isn't clouding what the mirror sees. Even more interesting, love and dislike are the things that cause this mist. The mirror, even though it's not human, knows that when humans love something, it appears more beautiful, and when we dislike something, it seems uglier. But the mirror is beyond all this. The vision-impairing mist of love or dislike does not apply to the mirror, which shows things exactly as they are.

Lines 4-5
I am not cruel, only truthful The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Here the mirror seems to realize that it's coming off as a little harsh, because it just shows what it sees and takes nothing else in account. So it explains that it's not cruel, just truthful. If the mirror were to lie to make what it reflected look worse than it already does, it would be considered cruel. Instead, it just shows what it sees, good or bad. We now get a dash connecting line 4 to line 5. A dash can mean many things (check out the poems of Emily Dickinson), but here, it seems to denote a comment from the mirror, explaining the previous line further, while in the meantime giving us a pretty cool new way to think about a mirror. The mirror, in line 5, is comparing itself to the eye of a "little god." Indeed, the mirror is getting a little high and mighty here, saying that it's powerful. It's also saying something about what it thinks a god is like not cruel, but truthful. Notice that the word "god" isn't capitalized in this line: it could refer to any god, even one in the guise of a mirror. Finally, the note that the god's eye is "four-cornered" (square or rectangular) helps us complete in a concise and graceful way the image of the eye in the shape of a mirror.

Line 6
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

This line tells us in a roundabout way what the mirror is facing: a wall. The line continues to personify the mirror instead of facing it, or reflecting it, the mirror "meditates on" (or contemplates) the opposite wall. This implies that the mirror, an inanimate object, thinks.

Lines 7-8
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.

Now we find out more details about the opposite wall, which serves as the object of the mirror's meditation, or thoughts. The wall is speckled and pink. The color pink makes the wall seem feminine; this mirror is probably in a girl's bedroom or bathroom. Next, the mirror tells us about its connection to the wall. Using enjambment, a literary device where a thought is split between two lines, the mirror tells us that it has looked at this wall for so long that it feels like the wall is a part of its heart. It's a little cute that the mirror feels like what it's reflecting is a part of its heart. But then we remember that the mirror doesn't have this feeling for the person it often reflects, but rather for a boring pink wall.

At the end of the eighth line, we see that the relationship between the wall and the mirror isn't as constant as we thought: the wall flickers.

Line 9
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Here we see why the wall flickers because of faces and darkness. The faces come to look in the mirror, and when they leave, they turn the light off, leaving the mirror to reflect nothing but the darkness. The way Plath has structured this line makes us think that the mirror must be sad at this separation. If we didn't know any better, we'd think that these two lines were part of a love poem from person to her beloved, and not from a mirror to a wall.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me. Searching my reaches for what she really is.

With the new stanza, our poem switches: we're now no longer hearing from a mirror, but from a lake. Yet the speaker is conscious of this change it sets it up with the word "now." We're not quite sure what the lake looks like, but it must be pretty clear and still to show reflections like a mirror. We wonder if the lake is as honest as the mirror, and if it misses the pink speckled wall. Whether or not this lake is the same at heart as the mirror, the poem moves on to show what the lake is reflecting: a woman. Because she's looking in a lake and not a mirror, the woman must bend over to see the reflection of her face. But the woman isn't only trying to see the reflection of her face; she's hoping to see something deeper: what she really is. She's searching the reaches, or the depths, of the lake, perhaps looking not only into her reflection, but also into the waters beneath it.

Lines 12-13
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon. I see her back, and reflect it faithfully

This woman is determined to find a way to reflect herself, to show something deeper than what is on the surface. After searching in the lake, she turns to face the moonlight and candles to try and see a different reflection. The lake calls candles and the moon liars, because their light can warp sight, often hiding people's blemishes and making them appear more beautiful (candlelight dinners and moonlight walks are romantic for a reason, after all). Here, we see more human characteristics from the speaker the lake is calling other inanimate objects liars. Of course, none of these things can talk, much less talk trash about each other, but this lake is proud of its honesty, as we see further in line 13. When the woman is turned away, to look at the lying moon and candles, the lake is still there, reflecting her back, faithfully showing the truth.

Line 14
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

This line shows that the woman is anxious to find what she's looking for as the lake told us earlier, she is searching for what she really is. She's not satisfied with the lake at first glance, but eventually turns back to it. But the lake seems upset that the woman is rewarding it for its faithful reflection by becoming more distressed. She shows her distress by physically disturbing the lake; her tears drop into it, and her hands stir up the water that shows her reflection.

Lines 15-16
I am important to her. She comes and goes. Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

This lake sure is proud, saying it's important to the woman it reflects. But remember, this speaker is supposed to be truthful and exact, so maybe it's right when it says that it's important to this woman. The lake even gives proof to back up how important it is it says the woman visits each morning, so that the lake then reflects the woman's face instead of the dark of the night. If this woman comes to look at the lake every morning, well then maybe it is important to her.

Lines 17-18
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

Now, the water becomes not just a calm mirror, but terrifying. In these two lines, drowning and rising in the lake metaphorically describe aging. The woman has "drowned" a young girl in the lake but we don't think she has actually drowned anyone. Instead, the young girl who used to look into the lake is gone, having grown into a woman. Why does the speaker say the woman "drowned" her own youth in these waters? Perhaps because the woman has spent so much time peering into the lake and fretting about her reflection, or perhaps simply because time is passing. Also in the lake, an old woman rises up but again, we don't think this is an actual old woman in the lake. Instead, the woman's reflection is changing and aging. She sees herself growing into an old woman. This old woman is like a "terrible fish," which brings the lake metaphor full circle and gives us a ghastly image of what this young woman has turned into: something as ugly as a fish. In these final lines, we understand what's so haunting and pressing about looking into this lake for the woman in the poem. In her own reflection in this lake, beautiful youth is sinking and terrible old age is rising.

These two lines are like the punch line of the poem; it's not a joke, and the lines aren't funny, but they deliver the message of the poem so sharply and suddenly it leaves you feeling a little out of breath, a little horrified.

Narcissus Narcissus is another example among several of a beautiful young man who spurned sex and died as a result. As such, his myth has much in common with those of Adonis and Hippolytus. In the Roman poet Ovid's retelling of the myth, Narcissus is the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. Tiresias, the seer, told his parents that the child "would live to an old age if it did not look at itself." Many nymphs and girls fell in love with him but he rejected them. One of these nymphs, Echo, was so distraught over this rejection that she withdrew into a lonely spot and faded until all that was left was a plaintive whisper. The goddess Nemesis heard the rejected girls prayers for vengeance and arranged for Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. He stayed watching his reflection and let himself die. It is quite possible, however, that the connection between Echo and Narcissus was entirely Ovid's own invention, for there is no earlier witness to it. An important and earlier variation of this tale originates in the region in Greek known as Boeotia (to the north and west of Athens). Narcissus lived in the city of Thespiae. A young man, Ameinias, was in love with Narcissus, but he rejected Ameinias' love. He grew tired of Ameinias' affections and sent him a present of a sword. Ameinias killed himself with the sword in front of Narcissus' door and as he died, he called curses upon Narcissus. One day Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a spring and, in desperation, killed himself. Both of these stories give an origin to the narcissus flower, which grew where Narcissus died.

Color, Light, and Darkness


Symbol Analysis

In talking about mirrors, the sense of sight is pretty important. So, of course, colors and darkness figure into this poem. From silver to pink to moonlight, this poem uses colors and light to give the reader images as they read about a mirror.

Line 1: The color in this line gives us the major clue that ah ha! the speaker is not a person, but a personified mirror. Since this is the first line, we think of the color silver throughout the poem whenever we think of the mirror. Lines 7-8: So the mirror is silver, but now we get the image of the pink, speckled wall, which the mirror reflects most of the time. This pink, speckled image is less exotic and exciting than the mirror's silvery surface. But then in line 8, we find out that this speckled pink wall is like part of the mirror's heart and hearts often make us think of the color red. Line 9: In this line, we get our first glimpse of darkness, which separates the mirror from the pink wall it believes is part of its heart. The mirror also mentions that faces play a part in this separation. What does this mirror feel about human faces if it sees them on the same plane as darkness? Line 13: We hear a lot about darkness in this poem, but it is only appropriate, in a poem about reflections, that we'd see what is lighting up the reflection. However, we only hear that, when it comes to reflections, candles and the moon are liars, that the light they

provide is false. The mirror's declaration personifies the candles and the moons, giving them human qualities, like the ability to lie. Line 16: Again, in this line, we see faces and darkness. But instead of the faces separating the mirror from the pink wall, faces replace the darkness. We'd expect the sky, in the morning, to replace the darkness, but instead, the woman's face is the first thing reflected in the lake.

Type of Work and Year of Publication


......."Mirror" is a lyric poem in free verse. Sylvia Plath wrote the poem in 1961. The London firm of Faber and Faber Ltd. published it in 1971, eight years after her death, as part of a collection entitled Crossing the Water. The New York firm of Harper & Row published the collection later in the same year.

Theme
.......If you want to know the truth, be as objective and detached as a mirror. It reflects exactly what it sees without hiding flaws. Whether you are evaluating an actor's performance, a meatloaf recipe, a religion, a political system, a Miss America candidate, a scientific theory, or yourself or another person, you must be "unmisted by love or dislike" (line 3).

Summary
Stanza 1 .......Speaking to the reader, a mirror hanging on a wall says it reflects exactly what it sees. It is not being cruel when it reveals the flaws of the person looking into it, the mirror says. Rather, it is simply being truthful. With proper illumination, it sees everything in front of it. In this respect, it is like a "little god," it says. The mirror says it spends most of its time looking at a pink wall across from it. It is as if the wall has become part of itits heart. From time to time, people pass in front of the wall, making it seem as if the wall is flickering. Stanza 2 .......The mirror says it is now a lake. A woman comes by each morning to look into it to examine herself. As she ages, she dislikes what she sees in the lake. But she comforts herself with the insincere flattery of others and the magic of age-banishing cosmetics. (The moon and candles mentioned in line 12 symbolize the false compliments and the cosmetics, for they cast only dim light that does not reveal flaws.) Meanwhile, each time she looks into the lake old age and death rise toward "like a terrible fish" (line 18).

Point of View
Plath wrote the poem in first-person point of view. The speaker is a mirror, which tells the reader what it reflects. In the second stanza, it becomes a lake. For further information see Summary, above.

Verse Form
The poem is in free verse, a type of poetry with rhythms based on words patterns rather than meter (such as iambic pentameter). Gustave Kahn (1859-1936) and other French poets pioneered this verse form in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Text of the Poem

......."Mirror" remains under copyright. However, a book entitled Poetry Reloaded, by Blair Mahoney, has reproduced the poem with permission of the publisher. You can access the page on which the poem appears by clicking here.

Notes and Comments


Line 1, I am silver and exact: The word silver here refers to the coating on the back of a glass mirror. It can be made with liquefied silver or aluminum applied to a smooth glass plate. A mixture of silver nitrate and ammonium hydroxide can also be used to make the coating. Line 3, unmisted: Not influenced; not prejudiced. Line 5, eye: The reflecting surface. Line 8, it flickers: The wall alternately disappears and reappears as people pass in front of it. Line 12, those liars, the candles or the moon: Because candles and moonlight provide only dim illumination, they "lie" about what they see. (See Summary, Stanza 2, for an interpretation of line 12.

Figures of Speech
The most important figure of speech in the poem is personification, in which the mirrorassuming humanlike qualitiesspeaks to the reader about what it reflects. Examples of other figures of speech in the poem include the following: Alliteration, line 2: Whatever I see, I swallow immediately Metaphor, line 5: The mirror compares itself to a "little god." Metaphors, line 12: The mirror compares false compliments to the light of the moon and efforts of the woman to hide her signs of aging to the light of candles. Simile, lines 17-18: The mirror compares the image of the aging woman to a "terrible fish."

Study Questions and Writing Topics


Can the poem be interpreted as applying to outmoded ideas as well as to an aging appearance? Explain your answer. Write a short poem that personifies an object. Sylvia Plath committed suicide when she was only thirty. Is there any evidence that she herself was afraid of aging, like the woman in "Mirror"? (You will need to conduct research to answer this question.) Some aging women and men today frequently undergo facelifts and other procedures to improve their looks. Write an essay evaluating the pros and cons of cosmetic surgery for older persons.