‘The Face in the Mirror’ is a memorable lyric poem that is generally considered to be a self-portrait of the poet. It was first published in January of 1957. Graves uses an extended metaphor to paint a portrait of himself in these short stanzas that also alludes to central moments of his life. He reveals his own double nature, that which is visible in the mirror and that which isn’t. This encourages the reader to see their face in the same way and consider their own inner and outer appearance.
Explore The Face in the Mirror
Summary of The Face in the Mirror
Throughout the first two stanzas of ‘The Face in the Mirror’ Graves describes himself and the history he can read in his brows, mouth, and teeth. He sees his crooked nose and it reminds him, like a landmark of long ago fights. Although these features stick out and are the first and most prominent things he sees when he looks in the mirror there is more to him than that. He still feels like the young man he used to be, the one who was ready for a fight, an adventure, or the challenge of courting a metaphorical queen.
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in The Face in the Mirror
In ‘The Face in the Mirror’ the poet engages with the universal themes of time and aging. These two are quite obvious from the first lines of the poem as the poet outlines what he sees on his skin, through his eyes, and in the visage that peers back at him from the mirror. He knows he’s that person he sees there but his mind doesn’t match up with the face he sees.
Through the beautiful images Graves presents of his face and his history, readers can feel the passage of time and an entire life lived in his wrinkles and scars.
Structure and Form
‘The Face in the Mirror’ by Robert Graves is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, known as quintains. These lines follow a simple, although quite unusual, rhyme scheme of AABAA CCBCC DDBDD. The “B” line, which falls in the middle of each stanza, rhymes throughout all three stanzas. These middle lines also contain the same number of syllables (six), although the stresses are in different places.
Graves makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Face in the Mirror’. These include but are not limited to examples of caesura, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, caesura, is seen when a line is divided by some form of punctuation or through the arrangement of the meter. For example, the second line of the first stanza. It reads: “From wide, uneven orbits; one brow drooping”. Another good example is the first line of the second stanza. It reads: “Crookedly broken nose —low tackling caused it”.
Alliteration is another interesting formal device that’s used to increase the rhythm, and implied rhyme, within lines of verse. For example, “flying frenetic” in line two and “mirrored man” in line two of the third stanza.
Enjambment is a common poetic technique where lines are cut off before their natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines three and four of the third stanza. This technique can help create suspense as well as change the way that readers move through the poem.
Analysis of The Face in the Mirror
Grey haunted eyes, absent-mindedly glaring
From wide, uneven orbits; one brow drooping
Skin-deep, as a foolish record of old-world fighting.
In the first stanza of ‘The Face in the Mirror’ the speaker begins by focusing on his eyes and eyebrows. The vibrant images in these lines help the reader envision exactly what this person, who is likely the poet, looks like and it’s not a complimentary depiction. He does not praise his own looks or even try to make the best of what he does look like. He reads history into his features. The poet notes that he can still see the leftover effects of “old-world fighting,” or fights he used to get into when he was much younger. He uses caesura and enjambment in these lines to weave them together. Plus, the consistent use of rhyme helps establish an even pattern. This is all despite the fact that there’s no consistent metrical pattern.
The use of the word “haunted” in the first line alludes to the fact that the poet is still thinking about the past and can see its outline on his features. This is furthered in the first lines of the second stanza.
Crookedly broken nose —low tackling caused it;
Cheeks, furrowed; coarse grey hair, flying frenetic;
Teeth, few; lips, full and ruddy; mouth, ascetic.
In these lines, the poet takes note of his broken nose and what caused it. He also moves more quickly through his “Teeth,” of which he has few, and his “lips” which are “full and ruddy”. Once again, readers can imply certain histories from these comments. There is a good example of alliteration in lines two and three with “flying frenetic” and “Forehead”. The use of the word “ascetic” at the end of this stanza is also interesting. It suggests that the poet sees his own features, or at least his mouth, as reserved. There is nothing over the top, or overly interesting, about them.
I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.
The third stanza shifts into the first-person perspective, using “I” for the first time. Here, the speaker reveals that he’s standing in front of a mirror shaving. He looks at himself the “mirrored man” who needs his face shaved. Graves questions himself and his choices in life, all with a scowl on his face. With the final lines, Graves reveals something interesting about his inner and outer life. His inner self is perpetually young, always ready to take risks, court “the queen,” and get into fights. This is juxtaposed with the previous depictions of his eyes and skin which show the true nature of his lives.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Face in the mirror’ should also consider reading some of Graves’ other poems. For instance, ‘The Cool Web,’ ‘The Naked and the Nude’, and ‘Goliath and David’. Although these poems don’t deal with age and time directly, they are wonderful representatives of Graves’ broader body of work. As a theme, aging is one of the most popular, as it is universal. Some of the best poems on the topic are ‘Beautiful Old Age’ by D.H. Lawrence, ‘Growing Old’ by Matthew Arnold, and the much more lighthearted and humorous, ‘Now We Are Six’ by A.A. Milne.