‘Now, if you’ll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I’ll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there’s the room you can see through the glass—that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.’
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
And moving thro’ a mirror clear / That hangs before her all the year, / Shadows of the world appear. / There she sees the highway near / Winding down to Camelot.
–Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott
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.
–Sylvia Plath, Mirror
Mirrors have long been associated with magic.
The word “mirror” shares an etymology with the word “miracle,” both derived from the Latin mirari meaning “to wonder at, to admire,” thus grounding this common object in the supernatural. In folklore tradition, mirrors serve as instruments for casting spells, conjuring ghosts, and telling the future. A mirror can turn a person into a prophet, enabling him or her to receive visions (mostly unwelcome ones) unavailable by means of ordinary seeing. The mirror acts as a threshold, as liminal space joining the mortal realm to the immortal, the visible to the invisible, the world of the living to the world of the dead.
In poetry, as in folklore, mirrors are accorded enormous power. The mirror is a ready-made medium and metaphor, an image whose role it is to replicate and beget further images. It is, in short, the perfect trope for the function poetry serves. Art presents us the world as it is—as Hamlet famously instructs us—“holding a mirror up to nature.” Yet the world that the poem–and the mirror–gives us is inevitably distorted, an image of the thing rather than the thing itself. Both poems and mirrors “Tell all the Truth,” as Emily Dickinson insisted, but they “tell it slant.” Inevitably, then, we cannot fully trust either, but must learn to live with ambiguity and duality, the idea of the true and the not-so-true yoked together so thoroughly they can’t be separated.
This duality of mirrors and poetry is both pleasing and perplexing. Alice in Through the Looking Glass is enchanted by the unfamiliar appearance of the familiar room she sees in the mirror. It is the same room, but with a difference, a place that is old and new. “The Lady of Shallot” is doomed to observe the events of the world outside her solitary room through the agency of a mirror; the cold glass interposes itself between her and life, distancing her from a reality she cannot touch, damning her to live in a world of shadows rather than one of flesh and blood. Her mirror is her curse, and it is her blessing.
Double, Double, Toil and Trouble
The chief charm of the mirror and the poem is the power of multiplication, of creating the illusion of two (or more) when there is but one. The poem is akin to the mirror in its capacity for incantation. Poetry is devoted to repetition as surely as mirrors are committed to reflection. Consider the rhymes in The Lady of Shallot, its insistent a, a, a, a, b, c, c, c, b pattern an aural analogue to the mirror-mediated life the Lady leads. There is practically no sound in the poem that is not echoed.
This doubling is troubling, for it sounds like a spell, language arranged for the purpose of foretelling the future, or for revealing ominous aspects of the present that presage disaster. It is also thrilling, filling the ear with lines that lodge themselves in memory and speak of mystery, echoing the rhymes and rhythms of our own bodies—heartbeat, respiration, systole, diastole.
This doubling is dangerous. According to ancient magic, a mirror can draw the soul out of one’s body and damn one to a death-in-life of itinerant wandering through a maze of appearances. Consider the myth of Narcissus who falls in love with his reflection and drowns himself in attempt to possess that unattainable other self he sees.
The mirror doubles us, and it also devours. In Sylvia Plath’s poem, the mirror is given its own voice wherein it confesses— creepily—“Whatever I see I swallow immediately,” suggesting its rapacious and irresistible nature. (It is worth noting that when mirrors speak, they rarely have cheerful things to say.)
Poetry: Mirroring the Unseen
For all of their analogies, poems differ from mirrors in their ability to go beyond, or rather pierce through, appearances to get at the reality that lies unseen inside them. In his poem, “Personal Helicon,” Seamus Heaney creates an alternate version of the Narcissus myth, describing his childhood compulsion to look down wells in search of his own reflection. The wells, however, are dark, so the young poet-in-the-making has to find another way of seeing what truths they may hold.
What draws him to the wells is the sound, their echoes which “gave back your own call / with a clean new music in it.” The man becomes his childish self again, in the act of discovering who he is and what his vocation will be, and confesses at the end of the poem, “I rhyme / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”
This is, finally, what good poetry does. It enables both poet and reader to discover their essential identity—to see one’s self through sound, paradoxically enough—to call into the darkness and listen to the music and mystery of human being. Undistracted by the eye, the ear lets us hear what we most need to know. And though it’s true that the selves our poems reveal are partial, at best, “slant” versions of us, echoes rather than our sound itself, they reflect aspects of the soul, a part of who we are the mirror cannot touch. Poetry is true magic and true miracle beside which the mirror looks like the cheap trick it is.