Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Face in the Mirror” is autobiographical. It presents a definitive image of the poet’s face, and its allusions to “old-world fighting” (World War I), “low tackling” and pugilism (fighting through life), and “a boy’s presumption,/ To court the queen in her high silk pavilion” (the muse) reference influencing factors in the poet’s life. Stanza 1 presents the poet’s literal face. Shrapnel, embedded since the war forty years before, makes the face look grotesque (“one brow drooping/over the eye”), but the allusion indicates that the primary grotesquerie was World War I itself, which marked the man with internal aberrations. In that war, bright young poets, friends of the teenage Graves, died. Worse, soldiers died from “friendly fire” due to disorganization among commanders. Once, Graves, mangled by enemy fire, was left for dead in the field. These aberrations appear as sprung rhythms in the poem, causing it, like his life, to fall short of melody. Yet as Graves’s long, renowned, prolific life as a poet was dotted with accolades, the poem is dotted with assonance and alliteration. That neither his life nor his poetry represent the song he meant to sing is clear when Graves explains, in the foreword to his 1958 Collected Works, that only the first poem in the collection (written before he entered the war) represented the poetry he might have written had he not been “caught up” in the war, which, he said, “permanently changed my outlook on life.”

Stanza 2 juxtaposes nonmelodic phrases and broken, etched images descriptive of the poet’s photographed face. Again, grotesquerie marks the mirrored image but, on a deeper level, refers to his serious participation in sports and possibly to verbal “fights” with critics, publishers, and fellow poets over what defines poetry as poetry. Most of these fights concerned Graves’s contention that...

(The entire section is 775 words.)