The Face in the Mirror

by Robert Graves

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

“The Face in the Mirror,” an autobiographical lyric poem, presents a definitive image of the poet’s aging face. Simultaneously, it includes reflections upon central moments and concepts in his life, which carved that face so graphically. Weaving physical description with allusions to significant memories, Robert Graves creates poetic tension in stanzas 1 and 2 and resolves it in stanza 3.

The tension in stanza 1 develops as the poet describes his eyes and brows. The eyes are “Grey” and “haunted.” The softened spelling of “gray,” juxtaposed with two hard syllables in “haunted,” achieves poetic tension, while the multisyllablic, hyphenated adverb “absent-mindedly” softens the sense of “glaring,” the verb it modifies, to such a degree that it seems to modify “eyes.” Readers, then, see haunted, hollow eyes staring vacantly from the mirror. This image heightens tension and holds readers hostage, although they may wish, desperately, to look away. With readers’ eyes pinned to grotesquely mirrored eyes, Graves makes the first autobiographical allusion of the poem: a reference to the most grotesque event of his life, World War I.

Grotesquerie continues in stanza 2. The poet expands the mirrored image to include an array of broken and lined facial features, from crown (“coarsehair, flying frenetic”) to “Jowls.” Again juxtaposing marred, bigger-than-life features, he makes them more grotesque against the image of few teeth between full, glowingly red lips, drawn together in judgmental fashion. In this stanza, however, the poet’s allusion to significant memories is woven throughout the lines (“low tackling” in line 1; “pugilistic” in line 4), while in stanza 1 he reserved it for the end. These allusions emphasize, physically, Graves’s participation in sports, which he reveals also left him marked and ugly.

The final stanza, less prosaic and more lyrical for all its pathos, has a lighter air than do the other stanzas. Graves’s ending resolves tension, allowing readers to experience an epiphany, akin to his own, when he confronts the mirrored reality of his aging face behind which he continually forgets that he is no longer young. Here, the poem confirms an old Hebrew notion that people look in a mirror and walk away, promptly forgetting their own images. In lines 3-5, Graves indicates that such looking and forgetting is not a new experience for him when he “once more” asks “the mirrored man” why “He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,/ To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.” This “moment of truth” reminds him of his two selves—one external and aging, visible to himself only in a mirror, the other internal and perpetually young, the perceived self. Graves manages to catch both selves in the pause of an uplifted hand with “razor poised.” As readers grasp the poem’s truth, theirs becomes the face in the mirror.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

Graves, a noted lyric poet, uses an array of poetic devices to achieve his ends. He uses the poem, an extended metaphor, to explore distinctions between his “face in the mirror” and his inner face. As an extended metaphor, the work becomes a metaphysical conceit. Indeed, Graves’s canon is filled with metaphysical leanings, for he considered all true poetry a thing of inspiration. He called it “muse poetry.”

Within the poem, Graves uses poetic tension and sprung rhythm. Poetic tension relies on juxtaposition of sounds and of sensory images and meanings, devices that Graves uses repeatedly in this work. Sprung rhythm, however, breaks the familiar patterns of rhyme, displacing melodious sounds often expected from lyric poetry. Here, Graves uses unnecessary functional words (“Somewhat,” “Because of”), prosaic syntax, and prolific semicolons to distort rhythm and melody; however, the third line of...

(This entire section contains 303 words.)

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each stanza rhymes, and lines 1, 2, 4, and 5 have the same ending sounds within each separate stanza.

By definition, lyrics are brief, subjective poems marked by the individual and personal emotion of the poet; their rhythms vary, they can be unrhymed, and, ideally, they are pensive and melancholy enlargements of the poem’s theme. “The Face in the Mirror” fulfills these requirements in the use of poetic devices and in terms of melancholic theme. It is Graves’s use of assonance and alliteration that brings the sounds of melody to the poem’s prosaic lines: the a, i, and o sounds; the alliterative d’s, t’s, f’s, and p’s; and the vowel alliteration in lines such as “I pause with razor poised, scowling derision.” Arguably, Graves breaks the textbook definition of assonance and alliteration, but the sounds of assonance and alliteration cohere throughout this poem, providing a reader’s ear with the sense of rhyme and melody associated with lyric forms.