Feminism / Literature

Sylvia Plath & The Big Bad Imago: An Old Tale For Modern Times

I’ve never really understood what people mean when they say they don’t ‘get’ poetry. Novels are for ‘getting,’ films are for ‘getting.’ The beauty of poetry is that it stays beautiful even if you don’t ‘get’ it.

A poem’s meaning or message is just one of its many attributes.

In my first year of high school I was presented with the basic ‘poetry starter pack.’ So Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 18,’ Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ and Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Education For Leisure.’ All three are spectacular pieces of verse, a heady combination of sex, violence and social commentary. Not only did they ignite my passion for poetry, they formed it. It was the first time I realised that a poem could be everything that a novel could be.

It didn’t have to rhyme, it didn’t have to be simple or even nice. It could be dark and brooding and scary. 

Barely a year later I stumbled across Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror,’ a short but strangely brutal poem about the female aging process. Being all of 14 years old it is perhaps surprising that I felt such a strong and instant reaction to this poem. Then again, perhaps not. Plath’s words are like the tip of a knife on warm skin, irrepressibly intimate, yet jagged and barbed at the same time. Though the poem itself focuses on a very particular stage in Plath’s life, the metaphor of mirror as judge and jury is a universal one.

Having moved to a different high school than the rest of my friends, my first few months were anxious ones. At 14 I was just starting to know myself, to know exactly what kind of person I wanted to be. Alongside this was the terrible teenage angst that comes with knowing that other people might not like who I want to be. Every time I read Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ I am taken back to those fretful first months, those occasions when I would stare into a mirror and wonder if I were good enough to ‘fit in.’

I love the honesty of this poem. Plath’s ‘mirror’ is cold and reproving, it gives her no comfort, offers her no respite from herself. Yet she knows that she cannot blame it. The power in her ‘little, four corned God’ resides precisely in its impartiality. Though it may seem to judge from its mocking position on the wall, in reality it can only ever present. It is never cruel, only truthful.

Unless I end up with an unexpected lottery win, my face is my face and I will never escape it for as long as I live. Though I am now much more comfortable with my own image, there are still days when I look in the mirror and feel utterly deflated. And that’s normal, I know that. It’s human.

Just another side effect of our big, big monkey brains.

According to French philosopher Jaques Lacan there is a permanent and intraversible gulf between what we imagine ourselves to be and what we actually are. Interestingly there are two distinct narrative voices in Plath’s poem. One belongs to Plath herself, or rather Plath’s ‘Ideal I,’ her constructed sense of self, and the other to her ‘imago,’ the mirror image reality that negates her Ideal I.

Her imago is both friend and foe, comrade and nemesis. She both and loves and loathes her own reflection.

‘Mirror’ manages to capture that nervous fascination that human beings have always had with their own image. Since the earliest of civilisations we have been fixated on the concept of doubles, of doppelgangers and identikits. Can you ever really know if you are unique, if you are ‘you’ and not somebody different?

To this day reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’ gives me chills. There is no more perfect depiction of our relationship with reflection. The last two lines are particularly harrowing. Being concerned with age they have a disturbing finality. They provide the poem’s narrative with an obvious end, death. I have no qualms with admitting that I am afraid of age, afraid of one day looking in the mirror and seeing what Plath saw.

I am afraid of seeing death in my own reflection.

Once again, it isn’t unnatural to feel such a thing. Our oversized brains allow us to do what other species can’t, come to terms with our own mortality. Therefore, it is also important for me to remind myself that the lost and damaged Plath was different to the rest of us. She laboured with the same mortal concerns, the same fears.

Only she could not shake them off. She could not escape them.

There really was no respite from the mirror for Sylvia Plath.


2 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath & The Big Bad Imago: An Old Tale For Modern Times

  1. lovely article. your description of plath’s style is spot on. And ‘Mirror’ is one of the more get-able ones I think; it could not fail to touch the heart of anyone- any girl, in particular.

  2. Great article. Sylvia Plath’s work is fantastic and as you say very intimate. When poets tend to write, self-consciousness tends to distort the true intention of their meaning however Plath was so brutally honest in her confessional style and it is striking to read yet hard to penetrate since we do not wish to be bombarded by the truth of what we feel. As you say, we are torn between the image we present in social situations and our interior sense of self and the difficulty that arises in modern life when the line between these two selves becomes blurred to the point that identity become fractured and lost.

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