Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

2202242  Introduction to the Study of English Poetry



Assignment 1 Discussion


General Comments:


Read the following poem and answer the questions that follow.





Sylvia Plath



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. 5
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 a 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, 10
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. 15
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.


1.  (2 points)  The personified mirror in Plath’s poem calls candles and the moon “liars.”  What connotative information on the two might help explain this disparaging tone of the mirror?


Comments: You should demonstrate a good grasp of denotation, connotation and tone in responding to this question.  Several of you did not show that you understood what connotation is and did not give very clear and relevant connotations for either candles or the moon.  The links below are to help you review connotation: what it is and how it is different from denotation.


Denotation and connotation (more at Literary Terms)

A good answer 1) gets to the point and answers the question right away (clearly states the connotation(s) for candles and the moon), 2) is not wordy and sticks to its point, 3) has very few or no grammatical mistakes, 4) gives relevant evidence from the text of the poem to support its argument and incorporates it smoothly into its own prose, and 5) shows understanding of the material and critical and analytical thinking.


Sample answer:

The romantic connotations associated with candles and the moon (ex. a candle light dinner, dancing in the moonlight) suggest that they are “misted by love,” not meeting the superior measure of “exact” truth that the mirror claims it gives.  Candles and the moon presumably do not illumine the woman as she really is (l. 11), but make her look younger or more beautiful, lying about her appearance.


Too vague, does not show clear understanding of connotation, can be more succinct:


The reason why the personified mirror in stanza 1 calls the moon and candles "liars" is related to the connotative meaning of these two words, which is lighting equipment as these two things.


Too long and rambling, does not show a good grasp of literary terms (ex. metaphor, connotation), grammatical mistakes:


Plath calls candles and the moon "liars" because she wants to use candles and the moon as the metaphor.  Candles and the moon have a very soft light.  They can bring us to obsess with their beauty.  Women often love their beauty especially when they are teenagers.  When women get older, they feel hard to accept the winkles that come with their ages.  The mirror can reflect everything in the real state of it.  When women look at the mirror every day, they will see the real face that will have more wnkles.  It seems that mirror reflect the real things.  On the other hand, candles and the moon reflect only the beauty, not a real state.  Therefore, these 2 words are used to clearify the disparaging tone of the mirror.


2.  (3 points)  Consider the metaphors and their associated verbs “meditate” and “reflect” that the human-like mirror uses to describe itself.  Do you think this is the same kind of meditation and reflection that the woman does when she “bends over” the mirror and rewards it “with tears and an agitation of hands”?


Comments: Here is your chance to apply your understanding of metaphor, denotation, connotation, and personification to a poem on your own and explore how a poet can play with diction, using different meanings of a term to convey even more meaning.  Notice which denotative meaning(s) of "meditate" and "reflect" Plath uses in each instance, for which character (the mirror or the woman), and to say what about the mirror, the woman, and physical change as one ages.


meditate (Merriam-Webster)

intransitive verb 

1 : to engage in contemplation or reflection 

2 : to engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one's breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness 

transitive verb 

1 : to focus one's thoughts on: reflect on or ponder over 

2 : to plan or project in the mind: intend, purpose


reflect (Merriam-Webster)

transitive verb

1 archaic: to turn into or away from a course: deflect

2: to prevent passage of and cause to change direction <a mirror reflects light>

3: to bend or fold back

4: to give back or exhibit as an image, likeness, or outline : mirror <the clouds were reflected in the water>

5: to bring or cast as a result <his attitude reflects little credit on his judgment>

6: to make manifest or apparent : show <the painting reflects his artistic vision> <the pulse reflects the condition of the heart>

7: realize, consider

intransitive verb

1: to throw back light or sound

2 a: to think quietly and calmly b: to express a thought or opinion resulting from


A good answer 1) discusses the meanings of "meditate" and "reflect" in relation to the metaphors, 2) analyzes rather than paraphrases or repeats the poem


Sample answer:

The mirror who does not lie is at least stretching the truth.  Claiming a natural function (reflecting light) as a willful act (thinking about things) and elevating itself to the status of a god, the mirror undermines its own personification.  The mirror’s ability “to throw back light” (Merriam-Webster) is not the same kind of contemplative “thinking” or “considering” that the woman does when she reflects.  Despite the human-like verbs, the mirror is not human like.  And despite the godly metaphor (“the eye of a little god” l. 5), the mirror is far from omniscient or omnipotent, being limited to its four corners and able to “see” only what enters that fixed field of vision.  Similarly truth-stretching is the lake metaphor that implies a depth the mirror does not have, physically or mentally.  The woman’s meditation of her face every morning (l. 16), on the other hand, “searching…for what she really is” (l. 11) ironically rings with more truth and shows more dimension.  “Bend[ing] over” to examine herself, the woman shows her very human vanity.  “Rewarding [the mirror] with tears and an agitation of hands,” she reveals her very real conflict: demonstrating realization of her aging yet wanting denial.



3.  (5 points)  How is the gustatory image of the mirror “swallowing” everything it sees at the beginning related to the visual one of the drowned young girl and the simile at the end of the poem?


Comments: Review of imagery, simile, metaphor, denotation, connotation.


A good answer 1) gives a close reading of the relevant images, 2) shows ability to synthesize material learned


Sample answer:



Disjointed, lacks clarity, has many grammatical mistakes, does not identify the simile:


The two images are related by the exact reflection, not distorted by any emotion.  In the first stanza, the mirror reflects everything before it without judgement.  It gives the immediate image as well as the lake reflecting the woman's image.  The poet combine these two personifications with the gustatory by giving an idea of the things that look into the mirror and the lake as a food that they have to 'reflect' the image they 'swallowed' because of its terrible appearance.  However, although they were rewarded with tears and agitation of hands, they still stand it do their duty faithfully.






Sylvia Plath





Some books on Plath at Chula

Barnard, Caroline King.  Sylvia Plath.  Boston: Twayne, 1978. (CL 811.54 P716Bs)


Bassnett, Susan.  Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry.  Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005. (Arts PS3566.L27 B321S)


Bloom, Harold, ed.  Sylvia Plath.  New York: Chelsea House, 1989. (CL 92 P713S)


Butscher, Edward.  Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work.  New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. (CL 92 P716B)


The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath.  Ed. Jo Gill.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. (Arts PS3566.L27 C178 2006)


Holbrook, David.  Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence.  London: Athlone, 1976. (CL 811.54 P716H)


Lane, Gary.  Sylvia Plath: A Bibliography.  Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978. (CL ref 016.81154 P716L)


Rosenblatt, Jon.  Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation.  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1979. (Arts PS3566.L27 R813S)


Wagner-Martin, Linda.  Sylvia Plath: A Biography.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. (Arts PS3566.L27 W134S)


Other critical writings on Plath

Annas, Pamela J.  A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.  New York: Greenwood, 1988.


Axelrod, Steven Gould.  "The Mirror and the Shadow: Plath's Poetics of Self-Doubt."  Contemporary Literature 26.3 (1985): 286-302.


Weller, Shane.  "The Deaths of Poetry: Sylvia Plath and the Ethics of Modern Elegy."  Textual Practice 20.1 (2006): 49-69.



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Last updated February 15, 2008