‘Before the Mirror’ by Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard is a nine stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines or quatrains. Each of these quatrains maintains the same pattern of rhyme The second and fourth lines of each stanza are the only ones that rhyme; but this scheme is measured and unwavering throughout the piece.
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Summary of Before the Mirror
The speaker begins this piece by describing the room in which she is trapped and her curse, like the Lady of Shalott, to sit before a loom and weave only the shadows she sees in her mirror.
As the poem continues it becomes clear that the speaker deeply resents knowing what the world can be, and being unable to see it. She wants at least to be able to weave something of interest, or have some control over the life, like Penelope, but that is not to be. She is, or seems to be, eternally trapped within this room with her “web” darkening, and her mirror of shadows.
Analysis of Before the Mirror
Now like the Lady of Shalott,
I dwell within an empty room,
And through the day and through the night
I sit before an ancient loom.
The speaker of this piece begins by comparing herself to the “Lady of Shalott.” This comparison stems from the lyrical ballad of the same name, written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson’s poem tells of a woman who is imprisoned in a tower on an island near Camelot. She is only able to watch the world through a mirror, as her back faces the window. She must remain there forever, weaving what she sees in the mirror.
Just like this imprisoned woman in the tower, the speaker of the poem feels trapped in “an empty room.” She is there, day in and day out, sitting “before an ancient loom.” This place is her entire world, but she knows there is another one outside the walls of her confinement.
And like the Lady of Shalott
I look into a mirror wide,
Where shadows come, and shadows go,
And ply my shuttle as they glide.
She repeats the comparison with the Lady of Shalott in the second stanza but elaborates on the similarities. She too has a mirror into which she looks. What she sees are only “shadows” that come and go. These shadows control the “shuttle” that she uses as she weaves on the loom. The small amount of the exterior world that the is a party to is depicted, through her shuttle, on the pattern of her weaving.
Not as she wove the yellow wool,
Ulysses’ wife, Penelope;
By day a queen among her maids,
But in the night a woman, she,
In the third stanza, she introduces another female character who is forced to a loom. This woman, Penelope, who was the wife of Odysseus in the Odyssey, has a little more control over her life than the Lady of Shalott does.
In an effort to ward off the suitors who are besieging her home (as Odysseus is fighting at Troy) she tells all the men that as soon as she finishes weaving her shroud that she would choose one from among them to marry. Odysseus had been gone for many years at this point, but Penelope was not ready to give up on him.
Who, creeping from her lonely couch,
Unraveled all the slender woof;
Or, with a torch, she climbed the towers,
To fire the fagots on the roof!
Penelope would spend all day weaving with her handmaids, and then at night, she would “creep” from her “lonely” bed and undo all the work she had done throughout the day; making sure that the shroud was never completed.
This was her task day in and day out, endlessly working with the hope that her husband would return before the suitors figured out the ploy.
But weaving with a steady hand
The shadows, whether false or true,
I put aside a doubt which asks
‘Among these phantoms what are you?’
After exhausting these two comparisons the speaker turns inwards and attempts to analyze her own personal situation.
In all the hours she spends weaving on her loom she sees a good many shadows of the outside world. Some she might be interpreting correctly, and others may be “false.” At some point, she must “put aside a doubt” in her mind that she is one of these shadows.
She does not want to think of herself as anything more than a formless, abstract blot on the Earth, without purpose or reason for existence. This is a line of inquiring that will not help her.
For not with altar, tomb, or urn,
Or long-haired Greek with hollow shield,
Or dark-prowed ship with banks of oars,
Or banquet in the tented field;
In the next three stanzas the speaker attempts to show the reader how truly empty her life is. She does not see from her place in the room anything that makes life worth living. There is nothing exciting, daring, beautiful, or noteworthy. Once more, all she sees are shadows.
She lists out all of the things that are on her mind, but she never has the chance to see. There are not “altars” of any kind or burial grounds, nor are there “long-haired” Greek men fighting behind their “hollow shield[s].” She cannot see “dark-prowed” battleships lining the beaches of Iliad, or even catch a glimpse of the banquets that the Greeks must have had on the beaches.
Or Norman knight in armor clad,
Waiting a foe where four roads meet;
Or hawk and hound in bosky dell,
Where dame and page in secret greet;
In the second stanza, the speaker maintains her line of thinking and the tone of her references. She is enamored by the lives lived by those in the distant past. She speaks of her desire to see a “Norman Knight” clad in armor, or a secret meeting between a “dame and page.” None of these things are visible to her, least because they happened in the past. She can see nothing but the shadows of her mirror.
Or rose and lily, bud and flower,
My web is broidered. Nothing bright
Is woven here: the shadows grow
Still darker in the mirror’s light!
She comes to the end of this thought in the eighth stanza when she states that none of the things, including “rose and lily, bud and flower,” grace the pattern of the weaving. Nothing she has mentioned is on her “web…broidered.”
There is nothing “bright” that she can see, there are only shadows that continually fill up the light of her mirror.
And as my web grows darker too,
Accursed seems this empty room;
For still I must forever weave
These phantoms by this ancient loom.
In the final stanza, she comes to the conclusion of her situation. She is “Accursed” to sit in this empty room and weave forever. Her “web” she weaves is only getting darker and there is no escape from it or change present in the near future. All she sees before her are “phantoms” which she translates onto “this ancient loom.”
This piece has been written as an extended metaphor for the life of a woman. This speaker represents all who feel trapped, or are trapped, within mundane domestic settings. They are unable to experience anything the world has to offer, all they have are their dreams of what life could be like and the shadows of a world outside their own. All of these thoughts are translated into the craft of weaving, a distinctly feminine art that stands in for all the other activities that one might engage in if she was allowed a place outside.
About Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard
Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard was born in 1823 in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. As a young woman, she gained an education at Wheaton Female Seminary and then married Richard Stoddard in 1851. Throughout their lives together they had three children, two of whom died when they were only infants.
Stoddard’s social life contributed to her rising poetic prowess. Oftentimes her home played host to literary gatherings and in the mid-1850s Stoddard began contributing work to journals and writing for the newspaper Daily Alta California. Throughout her life she wrote three novels and a number of short stories. She also spent time writing children’s stories and focusing on poetry. Her volume Poems, published in 1895, focuses on the myriad of problems inherent in domesticity.