Not Cruel, Only Truthful

Not Cruel, Only Truthful

This week’s poem is Mirror, by Sylvia Plath, which I have chosen to mark my new friendship with Sam, who is exploring Plath’s poetry and finding it rather impenetrable.

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

Sylvia Plath (1932—1963)

Poem 231. Mirror

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.

This poem was written by Sylvia Plath in 1961, eight years before she took her own life. It explores the idea of a mirror as an unflinchingly honest representation of the things it reflects, even the advancing years.

In the first stanza, the mirror reminds us that it uncompromisingly shows facts unclouded by emotions. It deals in truth, never shading or filtering the image it presents, like a god that stands aloof from human concerns. Day after day, the mirror reflects the décor on the opposite wall, so that the continual image is almost a part of the mirror, as if the image in its frame were a picture rather than a reflection: “I have looked at it so long/I think it is part of my heart.” Unlike a picture, the image in the mirror flickers as night and day alternate and faces come and go.

In the second stanza the mirror seems to be horizontal (“Now I am a lake”) with the flat glass like an stretch of water untroubled by wind or wave. The owner of the mirror gazes intently at her reflection, looking for imperfections in the lines of her face. She turns her back, hoping for comfort from “those liars”: the flickering candlelight or the soft silver rays of the moon, but the mirror unyieldingly shows the truth and she weeps and wrings her hands, anguished by the harsh reality of encroaching age. She continually returns to the mirror like a tongue to the space vacated by an extracted tooth, looking into it every morning as she has from her youth and as she will do in old age which advances on her daily like a great shark that slowly, silently surfaces from the depths to encompass her.

I like the poem because it expresses the nature of a mirror so very clearly while at the same time being a meditation on aging, particularly as it affects women’s perceptions of themselves.


  • Listen to pamandymagic perform the poem on YouTube.