Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

“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.”

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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 only “muse poetry” was true poetry. Those who disagreed, Graves said, wrote “Apollonian poetry”—poetry of the intellect that, he argued, fell short of presenting pure truth.

Stanza 3 also uses grotesquerie, but the tone of it becomes bemused self-perception. Graves mocks himself with old familiarity: He has been in this posture before. Nevertheless, the emotional impact on readers, looking over his shoulder into the mirror, remains arresting. The autobiographical allusion is to the poet’s overweening interest in the muse, “the queen in her high silk pavilion,” a reference to Graves’s belief that all true poetry is inspired by the muse. In time, he believed in the “White Goddess” (the muse of truth) and the “Black Goddess” (the wisdom of darkness or pain). Graves believed that the dual nature of the goddess brought both poetry and pain to humankind, and that, as poets, humankind inevitably embraced both. Nevertheless, Graves also argued that a poem always says what it means. Ultimately, disputes over these beliefs in his professional life marked him as greatly as did World War I.

Graves expands the grotesquerie of images in the poem to the grotesquerie of life itself. He puzzles over universal questions, pausing in his shaving ritual to ask the ugly face in the mirror why he, who had no pleasing physical feature, who had become ugly because of marks life placed upon him, who had learned that muses have little mercy upon man, still dreamed that dream of idealistic youth: His queen would deign to be courted by him. In that moment of the poet’s mocking awareness of the ridiculous, the poem achieves its greatest power: It is an awareness that, no matter what marks life etches upon people’s faces, something within them keeps its biggest dream. In that “pause,” readers enter the poet’s truth.

Published in 1957, during a time that many literary theorists identify as the cusp between the end of modernism and the advent of postmodernism, “The Face in the Mirror” has marks of postmodern texts: It is self-reflexive—Graves peers at his face in a mirror, reading it as a text written upon by events he could no more control than a blank sheet of paper controls a poet’s pen; it reflects the belief of both postmodernists and Graves that pure poetry lives in blank sheets, visible only to the muse who, in her time, reveals it to poets as truth; and it poses unanswered questions, leaving readers to find answers, since truth comes from the muse within the poem rather than from the poet, and her answer is always universal truth. This poem asks: How can it be that, within an old, battered man, a youth survives, expectant dreams intact? Universally, readers know that such a youth lives in them, but they cannot say why.

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