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Critical Studies

A Different Look for 'The Face in the Mirror'

Michael Joseph

Abstract: One of Graves’s paramount poetic concerns in the 1950s was with the relationship between the transcendent Goddess and his own mortal insufficiency -- physical decay, bodily lust, violence, impulsiveness. This paper attempts an analysis of one of his signature yet often misunderstood poems ‘The Face in the Mirror’ within the context of other poems of his that share these concerns written during the 1950s, as well as earlier mirror poems. Likewise, it attempts to demonstrate the poem’s indebtedness to earlier English poets such as William Blake and John Skelton and how conversations with them shape its meaning.

Keywords: English poetry, poetic inspiration, the sacred and the profane, William Blake, John Skelton, mirrors


The Face in the Mirror

Grey haunted eyes, absent-mindedly glaring

From wide, uneven orbits; one brow drooping

Somewhat over the eye

Because of a missile fragment still inhering,

Skin deep, as a foolish record of old-world fighting.

Crookedly broken nose—low tackling caused it;

Cheeks, furrowed; coarse grey hair, flying frenetic;

Forehead, wrinkled and high;

Jowls, prominent; ears, large: jaw, pugilistic;

Teeth, few; lips, full and ruddy; mouth, ascetic.

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision

At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,

And once more ask him why

He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,

To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.


At the 2012 conference of the Robert Graves Society in Oxford, Peter McDonald presented an interpretation of ‘The Face in the Mirror’ in which he tried to demonstrate deep similarities with Yeats’s poem, ‘The Spur’:

You think it horrible that lust and rage

Should dance attendance upon my old age;

They were not such a plague when I was young;

What else have I to spur me into song?

In ‘The Face in the Mirror’, Graves is ‘facing the truth’ that men of a certain age must accept about themselves, that their lonely animal desires are finally what is real about them. McDonald gave a delightful performance, but despite its charm, I was slightly shocked by the reductivism of his interpretation and his materialist assumption that significance is (somehow) an inherent characteristic of the physical. I have no doubt he intended to be provocative by challenging Graves’s well-known opinions about lust, stated, for example, in his Paris Review interview, [1] and perhaps he was playing devil’s advocate and taking on the difficult role of the ‘non-poet’ (a role obviously antithetical to his own character). Regardless of his intent, I felt that McDonald set up a straw man omitting essential elements of the poem and the poet. Nevertheless, however much I dislike the argument, I’m grateful for having been forced to look more deeply at a marvellously complex, essential poem, which seems to have otherwise been overlooked in Graves criticism.

I will begin my analysis by noting the obvious: ‘lust’ per se never enters the poem, as it does of course in ‘The Spur’, in which there is no reference to love or affection. The poem’s first two stanzas, lines 1-10, provide a detailed description of facial characteristics. (We assume as we must they are Graves’s facial characteristics, but the poem doesn’t tell us.) Absent the title, we do not know that shaving or a mirror are involved until the first two lines of stanza three (lines 11-12). Then line 13 provides the pivotal question, ‘And once more ask him why’, followed by the final couplet, which also reads as an affirmation: ‘He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption, | To court the queen in her high silk pavilion’. McDonald’s ‘lust’ reading makes hay with this couplet, particularly the old-fashioned ‘court’. ‘If courtship is a surprising thing for an ageing man to be getting up to’, he suggests (cleverly translating Graves’s catalogue of injuries into Yeatsian language), we are reminded also that this ageing man still possesses all of ‘a boy’s presumption’ (p. 688). McDonald then tells us that the persona in the poem is heterosexual, ‘albeit exaltedly so’; and then gives us this remarkable phrase:

The self ‘with razor poised’ might as well, perhaps, be putting an end to the life of that mirrored face (is Graves recalling for a moment, if only subliminally, Castlereagh’s gruesome self-dispatch?) as getting it into shape for a spot of courtship.

In the poem itself, there is no hint of suicide, so it seems as far off the mark as asking if Graves is contemplating breakfast or brokerage fees. Having ‘cracked’ the meaning of the poem, it seems to me that McDonald has tired of it, and assuming the reader requires diversion, tosses in Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who, no surprise, committed suicide by slitting his throat in 1822. Am I missing something? (A sense of humour, perhaps?)

I understand McDonald’s reading of ‘court’ to imply amorousness. The OED includes in its definition: ‘To pay amorous attention to, seek to gain the affections of, make love to (with a view to marriage)’. But to read the line, ‘To court the queen in her high silk pavilion’ quite so literally seems hasty and wilfully prosaic, although, to be fair, the poem, with its clipped phrases (‘low tackling caused it’) invites one to perform that sort of reading, up to a point. However, that reading is exactly what Graves is writing against; he is no more talking about ‘courtship’ than he is ‘queens’. He is not courting, or as McDonald puts it, out for ‘a spot of courtship’; he is ‘courting the queen in her high silk pavilion’. One must honour the phrase in its entirety.

There is another OED definition of ‘court’, which I would argue is Graves’s primary meaning: ‘to show oneself desirous of, to seek to win or attract, to affect (a thing)’. In view of the poem’s preoccupation with display, the notion of showing oneself or revealing an otherwise hidden aspect or aspiration seems more relevant than ‘paying amorous attention’. And there is some external evidence to support my reading in the OED, which supplies as an example a remarkably similar usage by Thomas Fuller (1639):

Hist. Holy Warre iv. viii. 183: ‘Never would he have had the face to have courted the Crown Imperiall.

‘Courting the Crown Imperiall’ and ‘Courting the queen in her high silk pavilion’ are near idiomatic phrases that signify ambition for lofty advantage. In Fuller’s case, an ambition for worldly regard, in Graves’s, otherworldly. And both phrases set off the petitioner’s inadequacy with regard to face. Fuller’s face is not actually a face, but an abstraction: a term signifying (again, according to the OED) impudence, effrontery or boldness. Graves’s face is, or appears to be, a face, a face apprehended in reflection, presumably Graves’s face; and yet Fuller’s quotation leads us to ask whether the face in the mirror is similarly an abstract symbol of impudence, or, as the poem itself later suggests, presumptuousness.

Certainly, all of his post–1948 readers would recognise that Graves means ‘queen’ to refer to The White Goddess, the subject of his book by the same name. The White Goddess was, for Graves, the intentional object of poetry and its warrant, that which the consciousness of poetry is conscious of and that which guarantees the truth value of poetry, and therefore, his last line reveals that the poem’s true subject is poetry and poetic devotion. ‘The Face in the Mirror’ is an act of presumptuous self-exhibition and self-assessment that reveals the irrational aspiration, not for hetero- or any other kind of sexual courtship, but to articulate poetic truth.

Under the gaze of The Goddess, poetry was a deadly task, for as Graves rehearses in The White Goddess, ‘It is death to mock a poet | It is death to love a poet | It is death to be a poet’. [2] Here poetry is deadly in another sense – a sense perhaps that recalls Yeats’s idea of ‘death in life’: a self-destroying event. Notice, the title asserts not my face in the mirror, but the face. Depersonalising the face, Graves detaches from the historical self.

In Graves’s verbal economy, the amorous sense of ‘courting’ seized on by McDonald is not lost but subsumed in the semantic structure as a subordinate, secondary analogue: to prepare oneself for inspiration may be likened to the traditional rite of courtship. Indeed, the idea of preparing oneself for a sacred union is one of the central formulations of The White Goddess, and one sees it in many other Graves poems, ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’ being perhaps most prominent (and ‘Mike and Mandy’ perhaps the most contrary).

The similitude of courtship emphasises the poet’s intensity and loyalty of purpose, his singlemindedness, while it also implies hopelessness, impertinence, self-delusion. Giving oneself over to such a proprietary enthusiasm, when one’s best shot is describing one’s bashed features in a quotidian shaving mirror, is ridiculous, although not un-Gravesean. We see this appealing self-effacing clownishness in ‘Love Without Hope’ (for example) a poem from Welchman’s Hose (1925): [3]

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

‘Courting the queen in her high silk pavilion constitutes a similar self-mocking gesture toward a similar conundrum, but in a darker register, somewhere between that of the larks serenading the heedless object of their song, and the final couplet of ‘The White Goddess’: ‘We forget cruelty and past betrayal | Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall’ (1948).

Unlike Yeats – whose feisty defence of ‘lust and rage’ seems more akin to Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Alabama Song’ (1927) – Graves is reaching with the presumption or face of the imagination through the unexceptional particulars of a lived life and a lived-in body toward a transcendence, while unabashedly emphasising the unbreachable gulf between his mortality and the object of his ontological longing.

There is another important way in which ‘The Face in the Mirror’ is unlike Yeats’s ‘The Spur’. Just as the poet’s aspirations do not implicate ‘lust’, they do not implicate ‘rage’. Images such as ‘Old world fighting’ and ‘low-tackling’ exemplify conflict and physical coarseness, but they are part of an elevated notion of combat that exalts honour and pride through which they assert a personal ethos, control in the midst of violence. They evoke rage but valorise its opposite, art. One could say ‘The Spur’ can be read to do likewise, and if so, I would agree on a basic similarity between the two poems. But I would suggest that reading of ‘The Spur’ would be uniquely Gravesean.

The Face

The organization of ‘The Face in the Mirror’ begins by calling the reader’s attention to the signifying qualities of the face, of features, then redirecting it toward an awareness of ‘the mirror’ (the poem’s mise en scène) and the otherness of the face. We note that on line 12 the mirror divides the face from its beholder, who appears to have been conjured into existence, in a mood of Gravesean irritability (hardly rage), to minister to it. And this relationship seems a metaphor, similarly inverted, for the reader imagined by the poem. The reader reading the poem becomes the poet looking into the mirror. This parallel is anticipated in the poem’s first clause, ‘Grey, haunted, eyes, absent-mindedly glaring’, and thus we may speculate on its thematic properties, which acknowledge an agency beyond the poet/reader’s control, ‘haunting’ his eyes, hijacking attention from the physical world (with its limiting mortal horizons), or gazing through it. Finally, attention settles on the realization of the self’s underlying youthful presumptuousness (line 14), and a vision of the ‘queen in her high silk pavilion,’ another binary pair of perspectives (lowly child / lofty queen).

The poem presents a catalogue of changing views: an inventory of facial characteristics that are mapped to biographical incidents and personality traits (‘pugilistic’, ‘frenetic’, ‘ascetic’) preceding a confrontation of sorts, or some plot: an irritable fellow is roused ‘once more’ (one thinks here of the shepherd Watkin hearing an inner voice in ‘The Gnat’) from some inexplicit slumber, to perform a barber’s service, although, like the saucy Figaro, he brashly poses his usual question; then this scene dissolves into a kind of split-screen, in one half of which we see, let us call it, an emblem of boyish presumptuousness and in the other, a brilliantly moonlit sky. Here the program ends, as the screen fades to overarching sky. The poem ends gazing upward, either directly or indirectly (through the mirror).

The tonal changes form an interesting parallel remaining level (somnolent or somniloquent) over two stanzas, and then abruptly quickening, becoming both derisive and amused, while yet enthralled. The modulation to the final couplet is one of the most Mozartian of moments in all of Graves’s poetry. Many of his poems end with an anagnorisis, and an abrupt shift, but few with such a profoundly sweet modulation.

This final revelation is the last in a progression, beginning with coarse flesh, rising into a sort of self-consciousness, or an awareness of self-consciousness (lines 9-10), and then finally, transcendence. In his Paris Review interview (1969), responding to an observation that his poems, especially his love poems, ‘get more intense’ as he ages, Graves says: ‘One gets to the heart of the matter by a series of experiences in the same pattern, but in different colours’.[4]

‘The Face in the Mirror’ can be thought of in terms of a series of experiences in the same pattern (in a darker hue) as ‘The Portrait’ (1951), a poem published seven years earlier. ‘The Portrait’ presents the same simple, nondiscursive series of descriptions from a single, clear perspective (e.g., ‘she speaks always in her own voice, even to strangers’, ‘She can walk invisibly at noon’, ‘She is wild and innocent, pledged to love through all disaster’). Then, with a concluding question, the perspective is flipped: ‘“And you, love, as unlike those other men | As I those other women?”’

The object of the poem’s attentive gaze snaps to life and interrogates the interrogator. As with ‘The Face in the Mirror’, whose invocation of The Goddess declares a conscious engagement with the nature of poetry, the reading and writing of poetry in ‘The Portrait’ is proposed metaphorically as a reciprocal dynamic between reader and text, a mutual making, or collaborative revelation.

The development of both poems depends on the reader’s powers of concentration and their investment in looking. For the persona of ‘The Face in the Mirror’, looking means filling himself with the object of his attention – reciprocally bringing the object to life – and self-awakening. The concentration with which the gaze of the poet illuminates select physical characteristics smoothly translates into the attention an exemplary reader pays to the formal and symbolic demands of the poem. In its rawness, ‘The Face in the Mirror’ posits an exact correlation between the particulars that construct the face in the mirror and those that construct the poem. And yet, even as the adumbration of the brutal and self-sacrificing – ‘ascetic’ – personal experiences invite attention to Graves’s work on this poem, readers must interpret it within the context of his lifelong dedication to poetry, his savagely ‘archaic’ muse worship, and, I would argue, to the gesture poetry makes to its reader, its courtesy (OED: ‘courtly elegance and politeness of manners; graceful politeness or considerateness in intercourse with others’). This double exposure posits a split within the reading experience that resonates the dialectic of selves.

The Gap

Greater than the force of romantic love apostrophised in ‘The Portrait’ is the recognition of the gap between the poet and the object of his adoration. As in ‘The Face in the Mirror’, the gap is ontological. The separation here is suggestive of the ballet Afternoon of a Faun choreographed by Graves’s friend, Jerome Robbins on Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune, and debuted in 1953, just five years before Graves published ‘The Face in the Mirror’. Unlike the earlier Nijinsky ballet (1912), the setting of Robbins’s piece is a dance studio, and the interaction between the dancer/poet and the ethereal nymph is entirely imaginary. Robbins’s vision is of the transcendent imagination. The body serves as a refined instrument and the dance a medium for the dancer (and choreographer) to achieve communion with his spiritual inspiration.

‘The Face in the Mirror’, while occupying a different aesthetic universe, dramatizes a similar ontological separation, through detachment and objectification. Although Michael Kirkham calls the poem ‘contently autobiographical’, [5] it is neither contented (the poem derides complacency), nor necessarily autobiographical: the ‘auto’ is just not that simple. The persona who speaks the poem is at one remove from it. The facial details are rendered neutrally, almost in the manner of a coroner’s report. The poet’s discipline and detachment, his ability to abandon both face and mirror – even implicitly to abandon the text of the poem – to make himself an instrument for poetic truth is a gesture of possible worthiness (in the face of manifest unworthiness).

In the Mirror

The poem repeats a sort of psychic meiosis that Graves had articulated between the persona/writer (‘I’) and ‘reader’ (‘you’) earlier, in ‘The Reader Over My Shoulder’ (1930). While I agree with Dannie Abse who notes in Encounter, Graves’s dialogue with an imaginary reader is ‘internally directed soliloquy’, [6] the poet negotiating with his other self (an internal critic), I want to press the idea that it can also be about a reader’s negotiation with an author. One dialogue becomes multiple dialogues. This multivalent condition of being lies at the heart of the poem. When one reaches the end of the second stanza, ‘In damned confusion of myself and you?’, the reader cannot feel confident he knows who is ‘myself’ and who is ‘you’.

In ‘The Face in the Mirror’, one can spin the direction of the action similarly; the poem’s narrative presents us both with a man gazing into the mirror at a face that has suddenly appeared, and a face addressing the ‘mirrored man’ – an upright man presumably peering into the mirror. The face might be an apparition conjured up by an unknown agency behind the reflective properties of the glass. The man might be a flesh and blood creature who has drawn close to the mirror (from elsewhere) because he conceives of it as an oracle, or the prelude to a fairy tale. We know his ‘beard’ needs attention, but what the man needs is unspecified.

The ambiguity of exactly who is speaking to whom, articulated in the odd phrase, ‘the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention’, a verbal sleight of hand, encourages us to think the reflection is more than optics. It possesses autonomy and agency. It acts on the world. (Here occurs the only instance of the first person singular possessive pronoun ‘my’. The only attribute Graves claims as his own in the poem is his attention – though he does not claim himself as the claimant.) This personification undercuts any naïve assumptions the reader might have of the superior reality of the physical, the hairy, second-hand, ‘too-human shape’, although neither figure, bearded reflection or scowling interrogator, can assert greater being: each is a function of the other, and no perspective dominates. [7] The poem insists (much as does ‘In Broken Images’) that ultimately both entities are mediated by the poem, and the poem by its transcendent queen.

The affect of ‘The Face in the Mirror’ with regard to the ‘mirrored man’ is cool ambivalence. Despite his ‘scorn’ and ‘derision’, the persona admits there is something remarkable about the ‘mirrored man’ that it cannot fathom. He has the presumption; he has an intuition of, and acts toward, the ineffable. Although the persona uses the idiomatic ‘queen in her high silk pavilion’ in the manner of Fuller, its resonance (it lingers as if there were a fermata marking over it) contains an unmistakable note of reverence. Derision and scorn shade into admiration and wonder. The logically-minded persona cannot grasp why the ‘the mirrored man’ (already the worse for wear, reminiscent of Ransom’s ‘Captain Carpenter’ [1924]) would again place himself in harm’s way.

The binary of self and reflection, or subject and object, with non-Aristotelian implications, appears in other mirror poems in Graves’s oeuvre, including the early and problematic, ‘The Pier-Glass’ [published in 1921, rev. in 1938], [8] where the persona is an emotionally tormented ‘ghost, though yet in woman’s flesh’, who studies her reflection in ‘[a] sullen pier-glass, cracked from side to side’. [9] Like the character of the woman, split between ghost and flesh, the mirror is divided between top and bottom. The redundancy forces on us the idea of division, which is once more expressed in the reflection the mirror presents to the ghost woman of a face as ‘melancholy | And pale, as faces grow that look in mirrors’. The poem seems to be warning us, almost with a playful frisson, that we may also be courting danger by reading, that a treacherous and unavoidable symbiosis exists between subject and object, reader/poet and poem.[10]

The act of gazing spellbound into a text/mirror attains greater moment in ‘The Face in the Mirror,’ and although both the mood and gender of the mirror-gazer have changed, the operation of an uncanny, transforming symbiosis remains. Although, when he wrote and revised ‘The Pier-Glass’, Graves had yet to discover The Goddess, it is clear the mirror embodies some of the characteristics of the poetical imagination and some of the poem. The analogy occurs directly as well as inferentially.

Looking through the window, the ghost woman describes ‘cold skies | Half-merged with sea’, which she dismisses as an ‘abstract, confusing, welter’. Obviously, the window is another kind of glass, and therefore a binary opposite to the pier-glass. Describing the natural world as ‘abstract, confusing, welter’, Graves anticipates Robert Frost’s definition of a poem as a ‘momentary stay against confusion’ (see Howe 1963). The opposite of this vision of the world as a meaningless vista should be poetry, and so by association we incline towards the idea that the pier-glass is a symbol of poetry of some kind. [11] The association with The Goddess in this poem might reinforce this reading.

There are other associations between the two poems that Graves may have wanted us to ponder. The ghost woman in ‘The Pier-Glass’ bids herself: ‘Peer rather in the glass once more, take note | Of self, the grey lips and long hair dishevelled, | Sleep-staring eyes’. The adumbration of eyes and lips reoccurs in ‘The Face in the Mirror’. Could Graves have intended readers (whatever one might mean by that word) to contemplate the two sets of images together? Writing ‘The Pier-Glass’ he was twenty-five or twenty-six, drawing on poems (e.g., ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’); [12] thirty-seven years later, in 1958, he is deriving himself from his own poems. They have become conditioning antecedents of his work. After the Goddess poems of 1948-1953, his poetry becomes an interpretation and narration of earlier poems, as much as of novel experiences – and to an extent even his novel experiences become an interpretation and narration of the past. The continual purging and realigning of his collected poems was his best effort to reveal how both work and life should be understood.[13]

Graves’s appraisal of his poems is dispassionate and neutral: on one hand, they constitute a kind of sacred history, a true account of who he is; but on the other, they represent a series of inadequate constructions, counterparts to the self-delivered blows, wounds and scars of ‘The Face in the Mirror’. His self-appraisal may be likened to the ghost woman’s split view and the cracked mirror. They are both sacred and profane: the sort of failures he will poignantly and, I would argue, ironically, lament in ‘A Last Poem’ (1964) and will characterise impersonally in ‘Timeless Meetings’ (1973) as ‘all faults of history | And bodily disposition’. Moreover, contemplating ‘sleep-staring eyes’ and ‘haunted eyes’ together might tempt us to mistrust our own habitual analytical enterprise of teasing out possible meanings as a kind of haunting. Our ‘eyes’, like theirs (his and hers), are haunted by the seemingly magical hermeneutic process that in fact mirrors or prefigures the haunting that we are examining. Both poems pay ‘meticulous attention to detail’ (as Douglas Day notes about the earlier poem), [14] and foregrounded by those precise details, readers will observe, is the act of paying meticulous attention, of attending, of performing a service. Where Graves’s older persona, ‘razor poised’, has revelation thrust upon him by the mirror, the ghostly woman turns to the mirror pleadingly. Kirkham suggests ‘she prays to the mirror’ (p. 48) A similar relationship obtains in the final stanza of ‘End of Play’ (1938), a mirror poem published in the same volume as Graves’s revision of ‘The Face in the Mirror’.

Yet love survives, the word carved on a sill
Under antique dread of the headsman’s axe;
It is the echoing mind, as in the mirror
We stare on our dazed trunks at the block kneeling.

Here ‘kneeling’ seems polysemous. The dominant meaning gives the position of the couple: they are kneeling (to be beheaded). The poet perceives the metaphor in physical form, dramatising both the irrevocable seriousness of love newly understood, and his intensified apprehension of his calling. However, a subordinate meaning of kneeling alludes to a traditional marriage ceremony, in which the couple kneel before the altar (a nuptial rite of passage, a death and rebirth). And, as in ‘The Pier-Glass’, kneeling might be construed to indicate prayer or awaiting a benediction.

In his analysis of this poem, Kirkham identifies ‘the echo standing for reflective thought and the mirror for imagination’ (p. 164). Kneeling, then, before the symbol of the imagination, the poet deferentially offers his life and service to a higher power – to Truth. The conjunction of reflective thought and imagination here in a single line of verse illuminates the central image of ‘The Face in the Mirror’; and we find a further connection in the revelation of the headsman’s axe, which Graves will repeat in poems of the fifties: in ‘Darien’, where it becomes a Cretan axe, and implicitly in ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’. In ‘The Face in the Mirror’, the headsman’s axe becomes a ‘razor poised’, a deterministic symbol of surrender and wholehearted commitment.[15]

The Pier-Glass volume contains another poem with a cracked mirror that is worth glancing back at, ‘The Magical Picture’.[16] The broken, dislocated, fragment of the mirror found lying on the roadway lacks any explanatory power or salutary effects. What the characters in this poem see when they look at their reflection only reinforces (with seeming mischievousness) their various solipsistic obsessions, so that a child sees a hobgoblin, a priest sees a saint, a pretty wife a jealous rival, and a sailor Lord Nelson. I argue in ‘“Orphans of Poetry”’, that Graves intends its brokenness to signify the unreliability of empirical data as a source of knowledge. While ‘The Pier-Glass’ may suggest the mirror as a symbol of poetry and poetic imagination, the broken mirror found on the roadway implies the necessity of reaching beyond experience and the senses for knowledge, an idea reiterated in ‘End of Play’, where the exaggerated responses to sensual stimuli seem to reference the absurdities of ‘The Magical Mirror’.

We tell no lies now, at last cannot be

The rogues we were – so evilly linked in sense

With what we scrutinized that lion or tiger

Could leap from every copse, strike and devour us.

‘The Face in the Mirror’ extends the argument by asserting that transcendence can only be mediated by inspiration. The crack in the pier-glass mirror may be an imperfection, may surely seem so to ‘sleep staring eyes’, or ‘haunted eyes’, but on deeper inspection may reveal itself as a potential source of inspiration, a break or wound in time, the bidding of The Goddess.

Another mirror, with fully mythopoeic properties, and a concern with the ontological weight of self and self-reflection appears in ‘Alice,’ a poem published a few years after The Pier-Glass in Welchman’s Hose (1925). Here, again, Graves turns to a children’s text, more explicitly than he had Coleridge’s Rime, or the generic ghost story:

For Alice though a child could understand

That neither did this chance-discovered land

Make nohow or contrariwise the clean

Dull round of mid-Victorian routine,

Nor did Victoria’s golden rule extend

Beyond the glass: it came to the dead end

Where empty hearses turn about.

Drawing on Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Graves dilates on the transportive qualities of mirrors. The mirror now propels us into the world behind the mirror, into illo tempore – the timeless realm of Poetry in which ‘magic is supreme and where, therefore, things happen which realistically minded strangers find difficult to understand’. [17] Moreover and importantly, the mirror world with the capacities and agency of the poetic imagination triumphs over the grave. Where the mirror world begins, ‘empty hearses turn about’. The hearses are empty because the burden they bear is unreal: being merely physical now, death doesn’t exist. It is ontologically weightless.

‘Alice’ reactualises the mythic confrontation revisited in the ‘The Pier-Glass’: a woman faced by a glass. By shifting genres from gothic ghost story to fairy tale, Graves relieves the terror concomitant with irrationality by replacing ambiguity, aversion and introspection with innocence and imaginative play. Where Graves kneels before the mirror, Alice pounces, cognitively (exercising her ‘uncommon sense’) as well as physically, embracing the mirror world ‘As queer but true’. Using ‘queer’ almost as an intertext, [18] Graves has Alice speak for him. He, in essence, enters the mirror world of the text by allowing the mirror world to speak through him. He becomes its mirror.

In ‘The Face in the Mirror’, Graves transposes this face-off between moribund actuality and romantic imagination into the realistic or mimetic mode – mimetic that is until the poem’s final leap to or into romance. The ‘mirrored man’, despite his outward appearance as a grizzled campaigner, is inwardly an ageless ‘presumptuous’ boy (possessing imaginative vigour, like Alice), and it is with that boyish presumptuousness the poet asks, to paraphrase, ‘How has this unfathomable fact of my devotion survived (both the brutality of physical existence and the numerous failures of poetic skill)?’

The Queen

If there is a ‘queen in her high silk pavilion’ implicit in ‘Alice’, she is the antithesis, or mirror image of Queen Victoria. Her proper domain, the domain of the sacred, begins where Victoria’s leaves off, the profane, where ‘hearses turn about’ – where the physical world has been inverted into the metaphysical; and, in contrast to Victoria (a conventional queen whose powers are merely an expression of traditional social organisation lacking absolute value), her powers are real. They are self-authenticating aspects of a sacred modality. From her ‘high silk pavilion’, she has jurisdiction over all that lasts, all that has force, truth, durability (all that survives ‘cruelty and past betrayal’), which one recognises through revelation (and according to the canons of poetic judgment). Unlike Victoria, the Goddess transcends time and space, just as true poetry may outlast empires: even the alphabets in which poets write it.

One might go so far as to say that ‘The Face in the Mirror’ is as preoccupied with timelessness as it is with poetry. We might infer that attending to a beard signifies curing the underlying cause, ageing, not merely the symptom. The depersonalisation of that ‘mirrored man’, the mutable creature, asserts separateness from the local effects of time, and thereby a separation from time, itself. When Graves ‘pauses with razor poised’ (line 11), he steps out of time. Joining the sound ‘pause’ / ‘poised’ isn’t merely decorative phrasing; it’s a break from verbal flow: a timbral standing still. Line 12 duplicates the act, as it pivots attention from the lineaments of ageing to the ‘echoing mind’. This moment of disjunction, which anticipates the transport of the poem’s concluding couplet, can be thought of as occurring in and reactualising the same moment Alice appears in the mirror world – in that time, in illo tempore: an archaic time that interrupts profane historical duration, the moment in which all sacred acts occur, for, Mircea Eliade asserts, each is merely ‘a copy of the primordial act of the creation of the world’. [19]

This is an ancient time sense that finds an early perch in Graves’s poetry: in 1923, for example, in ‘Against Clocks and Compasses’:

I deny to Time his terror;
     Come-and-go prevails not here;
Spring is constant, loveless winter

     Looms, but elsewhere, for he comes not near.

The gesture of withdrawal in ‘The Face in the Mirror’ completes itself in the recognition of ‘a boy’s presumption’, a recognition not of callow importunity or priapic youth but of an essentially immutable self – a self capable of praesumtiō, of taking in advance, not a liberty, but intuition: a boy’s praesumtiō breathes in the breath or the inspīrātiō of the Muse.[20]

Once the poem abolishes time by valorising presumption, the final couplet’s assertion (which deepens the question ‘why’ and answers it) becomes possible, as does the poet’s entry into archaic time, whose archaism Graves mindfully underscores by the stubbornly pre-modern diction of the final phrase, ‘court the queen in her high silk pavilion’. This characteristically Gravesean metaphor is quite economical, dense with complicated layers of meaning and association (none of which includes the notion of a hot date).

Her High Silk Pavilion

Let’s take a closer look. At the simplest and most literal level, ‘The queen in her high silk pavilion’ signifies the moon in the sky. The word ‘pavilion’, intensified by the adjectives ‘high silk’, asserts the splendour and fineness of the Queen’s lodging – the power and subtlety of poetry, whose power transcends the mundane just as the moon does the earth. Referencing Robert Grant’s nineteenth century hymn, ‘Oh Worship the King’, in which God, ‘The King’, is ‘pavilioned in splendour’, the phrase also implies an otherworldly prestige; she is no earthbound queen, nor terrestrial satellite.

Pavilion also echoes the battlefield imagery of stanzas one and two, recalling that soldiers sheltered within pavilions in Medieval and Renaissance battle. (See for example Romance of Alexander by Jehan de Grise, fourteenth century, De Machinis by Paolo Santini, fifteenth century, Battle of Duras, Chronicles of Jean Froissart, fifteenth century, and the Guiard des Moulins, fifteenth century.) Thus pavilion establishes the mirrored man’s lineage; he is of the same stock as the bold, self-sacrificing soldiers of the past.

Pavilion may also call attention to the aural nature of poetry, as the pavilion can designate the cartilaginous part of the outer ear. We may infer the very presence of the queen, or the breath of the muse/Goddess, from the music of the poem. In this context, the poem itself assumes mirroring properties, but mirrors that which cannot otherwise be seen.

A similar imagery appears in Milton, A Poem, in which Blake refers to the sky as ‘an azure Tent with silken Veils’; and ‘an immortal tent built by the Sons of Los’. [21] Blake’s tent is not merely an evocative phrase, notes David Whitmarsh-Knight, but a metaphysical one. The sky-tent’s metaphorical fabric is expandable; it stretches to accommodate the ‘temporal and spatial realities of eternal life’.

In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade notes the sky is ‘pre-eminently the ‘wholly other’. ‘Behind the sky [primitive humanity] simultaneously discovers the divine incommensurability and [its] own situation in the cosmos. For the sky by its own mode of being, reveals transcendence, force, eternity. It exists absolutely because it is high, infinite eternal, powerful’. (Emphasis in the original) (pp. 118-19).

Graves has chosen his archaic phrase to express a similar intuition. As well as pointing at the sky’s transcendent properties, his ‘high silk pavilion’ evokes the capacity of the poetic faculty to experience the sky beyond our normally ‘shrunken’ range of perception as ‘high, infinite, eternal, powerful’. Graves may be working within the constraints of realism, trimming his mythology to be caught as a reflection on idiomatic English, but like Blake, his imagery grounds itself in religious ontology.

‘The queen in her high silk pavilion’ lifts the poem from the mimetic to the romantic mode, as I have already mentioned, privileging a different structure of cognition and reframing preceding description, implying that, solid as the physical details may have seemed, their solidity is deceptive, a mirage. While the attempt to write poetry may seem like overreaching from an earthbound perspective (one that asserts control in its mature, grounded acceptance of mutability – the sort of aesthetic Yeats features in ‘The Spur’), in the moonlight and possessed of the expanded awareness conferred on the poet who beholds the sky-tent and its dazzling queen, its ultimate reality is revealed as a gesture of innate receptivity, a surrender of personal agency to Truth. Like Alice’s doings in the mirror-world, the poetic experience, with reference to the ‘high silk pavilion’ bears just a glancing resemblance to the daily experience of mundane England, but that is the stuff the poem is made on; hence the poet’s ragtag appearance is a repudiation of earthy notions of handsomeness and wholeness. The regnant light of the moon prevails over what Blake in Milton calls the ‘rags of memory’. And, of course, it is also feasible to read the biting question why as mock cynicism, or as a performative utterance, like a subconsciously contrived dream signal, intended to jolt the mirrored man (standing in for the reader) out of a trance-like stupor, to look up.

‘The queen in her high silk pavilion’, the moonlit sky, illuminates a dimension of being in which the foregoing physical flaws and disfigurements can be made to cohere as a poem, or at least the outer surface of one: here, in this sphere, where message and medium and meaning cohere, poetry becomes possible. Graves frequently ends a poem with a question, a propensity that increases in the 1950s and trails off after 1965. [22] The concluding question serves several interesting functions falling outside the scope of this essay; but in this particular case, the rhymed catalogue of manly parts that constitute the first part of ‘The Face in the Mirror’ cannot be understood as a poem without the final question – or rather, final assertive couplet containing the romantic image burdened by a question mark. The poem as a poem virtually comes into being just as it ends. The phrase, ‘The queen in her high silk pavilion’ then, seems momentarily to stop the forward flight of time as it redirects our thoughts back over the text’s preceding anatomy, and subverts our previous understandings and terminating the text.

Dispatching the poem’s materiality, the final couplet whisks us into a dimension we might liken to Blake’s Beulah, the notional source of poetic inspiration where ‘contrarieties are equally true’. In Beulah, to apply the analogy, the courtier’s physical imperfections would have no power; only his disposition toward poetry and inspiration (his praesumptiō) is real.

We can see more clearly and confidently that Graves is questioning the relationship of poetic inspiration to the mundane by tracing his ‘pavilion’ back further, to John Skelton, whose vision poem, ‘The Garland of Laurel’ uses comparable imagery toward comparable ends. In ‘The Garland of Laurel’, Skelton stoutly advocates his own poetic merit. The narrative begins in slapstick self-deprecation, as he finds himself alone in the Forest of Galtres, half-drunk and soaked in mire. From here, his sodden meditations wend into a dream: (stanzas 5-7):

Whlylis I stode musynge in this meditacion

In slumbrynge I fell, and halfe in a slepe

And whether it were of ymaginacion

Or of humors superflue, that often will crepe

Into the brayne by drynkyng ouer depe,

Or it proceded of fatall perswasion,

I can not tell you what was the occasion

But sodeynley at ones, as I me aduysed

(As one in a trans or in an extasy)

I sawe a pauylion wondersly disguised

Garnysshed fresshe after my fantasy,

Enhachyde with perle and stones preciously

The grounde engrosed and bet with bourne gold,

That passynge goodly it was to beholde

Within that, a princes excellente of porte

But to recounte her riche abilyment

And what estates to her dyd resorte

Therto am I full insuffycient

A goddesse inmortall she dyd represent

As I harde say, Dame Pallas was her name;

To whom supplyed the royall quene of Fame.

Standing beside the court of fame, configured as a magnificent pavilion set with precious stones, the poet eavesdrops on a debate between Pallas, the goddess of wisdom, and the Queen of Fame about the worthiness of Skelton’s literary reputation. The question of his acceptance into the court is only settled when past poets laureate adjudicate his poetic ‘record’ – in this case a long bibliography – then joyfully acclaim him one of their company.

Superficial similarities signal to thematic ones: the ontological question in ‘The Face in the Mirror’, how can common clay aspire toward immutable truth, corresponds to the explicit issue of ‘The Garland of Laurel’: how can one presume to merit the immortal title of poet in light of the circumstances of mortal existence. The notion of ‘immortal title’ is more explicitly a phenomenological one in Graves (just as his acceptance into the company of poets is a matter of his own internalised discourse), a point he makes again most poignantly in ‘A Last Poem’, envisioning himself in old age waiting for the Goddess to release him from his service, ‘well wrapped in a many-coloured cloak | Where the moon shines new through Castle Crystal’ (1964). As D. N. G. Carter has illuminated the pathos of the poem, reading it as a testament of Graves’s stoic acceptance of the ‘hapless fate’ of being a poet (pp. 255-56), I will emphasise the element of ironic self-mockery. Contrary to the heroic image of the muse poet sailing out to seek The Goddess in ‘The White Goddess’ or bartering life for love in ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’, here is the poet as feeble retainer, doggedly scratching out inadequate poems deep into senility, feebly muttering 'Am I a poet?'. [23] But as in ‘The Face in the Mirror’, the final lines are transformative:

Shall I never hear her whisper softly:

‘But this is truth written by you only,

And for me only; therefore, love, have done’?

With this inspired sentence, set over three lines (a triad), the old scribbler becomes a true poet, though outwardly remaining the same haggard soul.

Boyish Presumption

The receptivity of the imagination to inspiration (despite human squalor and ignorance) is the precipitant; what might seem like ‘presumption’ to a pragmatic reader is a redemptive disposition toward the real, toward what is ‘powerful’ and ‘eternal’. This agency is less a function of the poet’s free will than it is the Goddess’s.

The poem’s deeply presumptuous character becomes clear when we consider one final interpretation of ‘high silk pavilion’: as a metaphor for the vagina.

Sexuality, in the familiar biological, psychological and social catalogues, is obviously not what is at issue here. I would suggest that the uncouth reading of ‘court’ amounts, more or less, to a soldierly joke, perhaps part of the poem’s quixotic attempt to find purity in impurity.

Sardonic irony is very much part of Graves’s poetics, as we see in his many poems where concluding utterance epitomises a point of view antithetical to its literal sense. In his poeticising of the Peng Kun myth, ‘The Pen’g that was a K’un’, published in Colophon to Love Respelt (1967), the commonplace finch and sparrow express wonder, and indeed, perhaps indignation, learning that the P’eng can ‘soar to the most Southerly pool of Heaven’, while they can fly ‘only | To yonder elm’. ‘“How can the P’eng outdo us?’” the sparrow asks, adding, ‘“Though, indeed, neither started as a fish”’ (a K’un). The metamorphosis from lowly fish to celestial bird, a change the purebred albeit garden-variety birds cannot achieve or even fathom, since they have merely mundane thoughts, suggests the transformations in ‘The Face in the Mirror’: the persona’s transformation from battle-scarred fighter to inspired poet, and the poem’s transformation into a proper poem from a medical chart.

I would argue that the vaginal suggestion of ‘high silk pavilion’ is similarly intended to emphasise miraculous transformation.

To return to the word, itself, ‘pavilion’ derives from the Middle English pavilloun, which descends from the Anglo-Norman pavilloun, and the Latin p_pili_nem, a form of p_pili_ (butterfly, moth). ‘Pavilion’ is mimetic, deriving from the resemblance of a tent to a butterfly’s wings. The butterfly appears in cultural production – art, literature, dance, music – to symbolise the spirit, a symbolism that can be traced back to ancient Greek where the same word signifies ‘soul’ and ‘butterfly’. [24] Having translated the Roman story of Cupid and Psyche in 1950, Graves was almost certainly aware of the tradition eight years later when he composed ‘The Face in the Mirror’. If ‘Alice’ had been in his thoughts at this time (as I believe she was), then so might Psyche have been, whose story he references indirectly in ‘Alice’ by citing Apuleius, and his second-century novel, The Transformations. [25] We might conjecture that Psyche’s disregard of a taboo against looking at Cupid – the god – informs the visual imagery of ‘The Face in the Mirror’. Just as seeing the god transports Psyche beyond her mortality, gazing at ‘the queen in her high silk pavilion’ – the Goddess – transports Graves beyond his.[26]

Just as butterfly wings are conventionally associated with the delicacy, lightness and capriciousness of the spirit, the visuality and tactility of butterfly wings are associated with labia; and the relationship of the hood of the tent with the hood over the clitoris. Graves helps this metaphor along by using the modifier ‘silk’, a word with pre-eminent haptic associations. In ‘high silk pavilion’, delicacy of the soaring spirit is conjoined to sexuality or a nuance of sexuality, a union that we might trace in other clear-cut vaginal images in the poem, such as the poem’s rhyme scheme.

The poem’s three stanzas have a quirky though consistent pattern of aabaa, ccbcc, ddbdd. The stanza’s rhyming lines (1, 2, 4, 5) produce one rhyme consistent within the stanza, and the unrhymed line (3) produces one rhyme consistent within the poem. Viewing only the stanza, the third line ending seems extraneous, but within the entirety of the poem, it becomes a central structural element, a steady signal throughout the revolutions of the poem. The outer rhyming lines of each stanza (1, 2, 4, 5), enfold the third line, and the greater length and number of syllables in each of these simulate paired labia, while the unrhymed (shorter, and more compact) third line simulates the unique clitoris (or what in 1958 Graves would have understood the clitoris to be, the glans clitoris).

The ‘b’ rhyme (the ‘i’ sound) of each third line (3, 8, 13) also simulates height. Linguists call the ‘i’ sound a close front unrounded vowel, or sometimes a ‘high vowel’, because the tongue is vertically higher in the mouth relative to other vowels. Perhaps we might even unconsciously associate it with elevated speech, or poetry. By coincidence, it also anticipates the ‘i’ in ‘high silk pavilion,’ wherein of course resides the queen – so with the rhyme scheme, Graves suggests a chain of associations: queen, [clitoris], tongue, poetry. The rhymes in each stanza are also imperfect, and feminine rhymes (‘glaring, drooping, inhering, fighting’, etc.). Graves has the rhymes attend, as it were, upon the central, third, or middle line of each stanza. Moreover, the poem’s division into three stanzas supplies another feminine, as well as a mythological, touch, suggesting the triple Goddess, a complement to the aural implication that the breath of the Goddess enters or is somehow resident within the poem by inspiration, just as the shaving man’s face is resident in the mirror, a reflection of the poet’s glancing presence in the poem.

This latter analogy assumes additional significance when we come to consider that the face of the shaving man is characterised somewhat vaginally, with drooping brow, coarse hair, wrinkled, and ruddy lips. The vaginal attributes of ‘high silk pavilion’ are anticipated by the terms Graves uses to characterise the face. Certainly, the sexualised face is part of the pawky humour of the poem (another soldier’s joke) but not an end in itself, obviously.

Let me summarize to this point what should seem an unorthodox reading: the stanzas of the poem are vagina-like in their phonological form and line lengths, and that the climax of the poem occurs as the poet, whose reflection also resembles the outward form of a vagina, apostrophises a symbol that is also vaginal, in a poem that I am claiming to be about the capacity of the imagination to seize and transport the divided self, despite its material and historical flaws, into a timeless realm (illo tempore), more solid, more real, than the physical (a realm I have compared with Blake’s Beulah and Skelton’s ‘pauylion’ of the royal queen of fame).

Doubtless, some readers will accuse me of misreading or deliberately over-reading the images in Graves’s poem without respect for authorial intention. That is at loggerheads with my intention. I do not intend to create the text, as Stanley Fish would say, or an alternative text. The three elements I have looked at in this final section of my essay (pavilion/rhymes, rhyme sounds & line lengths/face) contain an improbable though intentional pattern, characteristically Gravesean, which requires theorising and speculation. My speculation is that by representing the body in this singular, forceful, transgressive way, Graves follows a radical notion of reclaiming the body from familiar essentialist readings: from the ‘contented autobiography’ of Kirkham’s reading, among others.

His vision seems to be akin to Blake’s ‘body of imagination’, a term coined, I believe, by Jennifer Davis Michael, who correlates Blake’s redemption of the body with his assault upon reason. Michael draws attention to stanza 41 of Milton, A Poem:

I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration
To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albions covering
To take off his filthy garments, & clothe him with Imagination
To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration

She writes:

This statement asserts that no specific body is inevitable; that the material forms in which we clothe ourselves are of our own devising. Blake’s Milton makes this clear by preparing not only ‘To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration’, but also to ‘clothe [Albion] with Imagination’ (42.4, 4, E 142). Not only the ‘false body’, in other words, but the true body of imagination is represented as a garment that may be put on or cast off (like the multi-coloured body of the old retainer in ‘A Last Poem’, or Lucius’s ass body). Blake supports this principle in Milton by ‘depicting all of nature, and specifically the human body [my emphasis], as a work of art, a product of the human imagination that inhabits and subjectively experiences its form’ (p. 120).

Graves’s ‘rotten rags of Memory’ would be the bodily parts described in the poem’s ekphrasis, which are being superseded by the true body of imagination, the poetic, regenerative faculty ecstatically reconfigured as the flower of regeneration transmitted through the physical senses of the poet in the act of creation. The transformations of sky, stanza, and face into vagina, are defining acts of authorial agency. Their eccentricity gathers attention upon their artificiality and plasticity to expose their nature as imaginative reshapings and overwritings much more vividly than if they had been transposed into, say, fruit, flowers, birds, Hershey bars, or other conventional euphemisms.

Graves’s willingness to poeticise reproductive organs is well-known. Besides the remarkable priapic line in ‘The White Goddess’, there is the full-frontal ‘Down, Wanton, Down’ (1933), a poem with thematic resonances of the roughly contemporary ‘The Reader Over My Shoulder’. Here the ludic deployment of the male sexual organ, as a ‘thumb’ for example, and as a ‘bombard-captain’, is accompanied by an ingenious use of ravelin to refer to the vagina:

Poor bombard-captain, sworn to reach

The ravelin and effect a breach –

Indifferent what you storm or why,

So be that in the breach you die! [27]

Elsewhere in his work, Graves assimilates physical features of the text and book object as symbols within the imaginative reality of the narrative, for example, the comma that concludes ‘Leaving the Rest Unsaid’ (1938), which the poem figuratively transforms into ‘a gander’s wing’. In the children’s book he co-created with Maurice Sendak, The Big Green Book (1960), the actual large-format green clothbound book in the reader’s hand becomes an analogue of the big green book that propels the narrative forward (and thus it analogises its own narrative episodes to a set of magical spells and reading to magical transformation). The reader’s interpretation of ‘The Magical Picture’ (alternatively published as a children’s poem) becomes an analogue of what each of the characters in the narrative thinks they see when they look in the glass, i.e., an unreliable mental projection. As such, ‘The Magical Picture’ dematerialises the text, while posing a subtle challenge to the objective existence of the reader. By recreating the materiality of the text and the hermeneutical process as metaphors within these works, Graves distresses rationality and empirical categories, i.e., book/text, poem/reading, as authoritative agencies of meaning making, in deference to the imagination as the topos of a meta-reality. In ‘The Face in the Mirror’, this metaphorical disembodying stunt opens up an imaginative and conceptual space for readers to engage with the ontological shift of the physical body, beginning with the vagina, from an ontic phenomenon to a conceptual corollary of the poetic. The body becomes, or is revealed as, a work of art (Blake), capable of coded, symbolic expression, and intentionality, not as a passive product of history (i.e., ‘low tackling caused it’); and the ultimate meaning points to the fount of poetic inspiration, the ‘queen in her high silk pavilion’, a generative power that brings the universe into being through an act of spontaneous imaginative valorisation.

In conclusion, in ‘The Face in the Mirror’, through complex and original signalling that involves a reworking of older tropes and invokes literary antecedents and the authority of a romantic tradition of English poetry, Robert Graves addresses themes that have been at the centre of his poetics since the early twenties, namely the intentionality of poetry, the transcendent power of inspiration, poetic presumption, and the contingency of material actuality. He returns to the trope of the mirror as an act of penetrating self-reflection, in keeping with the physical transcendence and reshaping formulations of the poem. He certainly is not surrendering to the idea that physical decay is deterministic, or merely saluting it for its inspirational powers. Reframing the effects of aging as the faults of history, profane time, he celebrates the agelessness of poetry, the unfathomable wellsprings of inspiration, of inexplicable ecstasy, and if modestly no less importantly, his own unique, hard-earned poetic independence.

Michael Joseph is the editor of The Robert Graves Review and one of two North American Vice Presidents of The Robert Graves Society.



[1]  Typically, Graves looks at the subject of lust from the perspective of his poetic beliefs:

Lust involves a loss of virtue, in the sense of psychic power. Lust is giving away something that belongs to somebody else. I mean the act of love is a metaphor of spiritual togetherness, and if you perform the act of love with someone who means little to you, you’re giving away something that belongs to the person you do love or might love. [...] But promiscuity seems forbidden to poets, though I do not grudge it to any nonpoet.’

Robert Graves, ‘Robert Graves: The Art of Poetry, no. 11’, interview by William Fifield & William Buckman, The Paris Review, 47 (Summer 1969) [accessed 7 June 2020]

[2] Robert Graves, The White Goddess (London: Faber, 1948), p. 451.

[3] Kenzaburô Ôe wrote, ‘The writer’s job is the job of a clown, the clown who also talks about sorrow’. While Graves might not necessarily see poetry as a job, or, even in this early period of his life, feel his purpose was that of a clown, it still seems to me that Ôe’s light-hearted remark casts a light on the deeper vocational implications of ‘Love Without Hope’. Kenzaburô Ôe, ‘Kenzaburô Ôe, The Art of Fiction, no. 195’, interviewed by Sarah Fay, Paris Review, no. 183, (Winter 2007) <> [Accessed 5 June 2021]

[4] Robert Graves, ‘The Art of Poetry’, interview by William Fifield and William Buckman, Paris Review, 49 (Summer 1969) [Accessed 23 May 2021]

[5] Michael Kirkham, The Poetry of Robert Graves (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 239.

[6] Dannie Abse, ‘A Meeting with Robert Graves’ Encounter, 60 (February 1983), 53-55.

[7] Here one thinks of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s notion of the ‘I’ and the ‘I-Thing’, the Self and its approximation, its mirror image reflected in the poem in ‘Disclaimer of the Person’. Unlike Jackson in that poem, Graves does not ascribe greater ontological weight to the ‘I’. ‘I’ and ‘I Thing’ are both doubtful entities. The Goddess, or the greater magnitude of poetry, allows him to escape the closed system of self and mirror, and thus to persist as a poet, whereas (Riding) Jackson, insisting on the ‘I’ does not. See Marta Kmiecik, ‘Does it seem I . . . poet-wit? Shame on me then!” Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Refusal to Play the Game of Poetry’, Polish Journal for American Studies, 7 (2013), 35-48.

[8] ‘The Pier-Glass’ published in 1921 had a fourth stanza Graves removed in 1938. See editorial note in Robert Graves, Complete Poems, ed. by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward, 3 vols (Manchester: Carcanet, 1995), i, pp. 365-66.

[9] Attributing the characteristic of sullenness or of being ‘sullen’ to the pier-glass seems to slightly anthropomorphise the glass. The word ‘sullen’ is likely to mean gloomy or foreboding, although it might also insinuate an obsolete meaning, slow or single, as the ‘sullen wave’ in Graves’s ‘Intercession in Late October’ (1948).

[10] I may have spent an unreasonable amount of time on this poem, which many consider among Graves’s least successful. Nonetheless, see my ‘Orphans of Poetry”: The Poetry of Childhood and the Poetry for Children of Robert Graves’, Book 2.0., 6 (2016), 9-20 (pp. 16-19); and ‘Like Snow in a Dark Night”: Exile and Displacement in the Poetics of Robert Graves’, Book 2.0. 8 (2018), 43-60 (pp. 51-54). In the latter work I consider ‘The Face in the Mirror’ in ways that are compatible with and anticipate my analysis here (pp. 52-54).

[11] Orphans”’, p. 17; Irving Howe, ‘Robert Frost: A Momentary Stay’, The New Republic, 23 March 1963 [Accessed 26 October 2016]

[12] Graves would have expected readers to get the allusion to Coleridge’s water-snakes passage in his own description of ‘wainscot rat’ and ‘starveling spider’ (‘Orphans”’, p. 18).

[13] For a note about the importance of reading Graves within the canonical collections and the emerging coherence of the canon, see Frank Kersnowski, ‘Robert Graves’s Enduring War’, Gravesiana, 4 (2014) 125-41 (pp. 133-36).

[14] Douglas Day, Swifter than Reason: The Poetry and Criticism of Robert Graves (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), pp. 30-31.

[15] His Collected Poems 1938 (London: Cassell, 1938) follows ‘End of Play’ with ‘No More Ghosts’, which takes and transfigures an image from the second stanza of ‘The Pier-Glass’: ‘A huge bed of state | Shrouded with rusty curtains drooped awry’.

The patriarchal bed with four posts

Which was a harbourage of ghosts

Is hauled out from the attic glooms

And cut to wholesome furniture for wholesome rooms.

[16] However unexceptional the poem might seem, that Graves thought enough of it to revise sixteen years later, and to highlight it in another poem (which will become the title of a small volume of poems published in 1940) suggests it held some importance in Graves’s development.

I attempt a fuller analysis of ‘The Magical Picture’, concentrating on its epistemological interests, in ‘Orphans’, 14-16.

[17] Robert Graves, Poetic Unreason (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1968), p. 125.

[18] Alice uses ‘queer’ seven times in Through the Looking Glass, and only one other character, Humpty-Dumpty, uses the word, once; she uses ‘queer’ twelve times in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and again only one other character uses the word, again once.

[19] Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, trans. by Willard R. Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 10.

It is the perception that the myth is exemplary that gives rise to the concept of the ‘re-actualization’ of the primordial, creative era. Insofar as a mythic act is open to imitation, insofar as we can narrate or reenact the events of the mythic era, illud tempus is open to re-establishment, we can rediscover and thus reactualize its meaning and its power.’ Bryan S. Rennie, Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 72.

[20] The Latin roots of the English ‘presumption’ are entangled with ‘inspiration’. Praesumptiō means 1. ‘Taking beforehand, a using or enjoying in advance anticipation. 2. A taking up and answering in advance, an anticipation; 3. A representing to one’s self beforehand, a conception, supposition, presumption’. (‘Definition of praesumptiō, Numen: The Latinlexicon [accessed 7 June 2020].

Inspīrātiō in Classical poetry meant to breathe in the breath of the muses. A boy’s praesumptiō coming in anticipation of conception is the inspīrātiō of the Muse.

[21] In Jerusalem, Blake speaks also of a tent.

The woven universe is described as a tent created in response to the temporal and spatial realities of eternal life (2: 38; 14-50), and Los has made it clear that ‘there is no Limit of Expansion’ and ‘there is no Limit of Translucence’ (2: 32; 45): those in infinity can ‘Contract or Expand Space at will’ and live, ‘Contracting or Expanding Time’ (3: 55; 44-45). In its finite context in this world of Generation, the shrunken flexibilities of perception range from the ‘Earth’s summits’ of petrified form to the ‘Indefinite Spectre’ of formless space, ‘who is the Rational Power’. This web, woven by the daughters of Albion, thus organises and universalises fertility into unity: ‘Then All the Daughters of Albion became One before Los: even Vala’. David Whitmarsh-Knight, William Blake’s Jerusalem Explained (Cambridge: William Blake Press, 2009), p. 359.

[22] In the 1930s, Graves concludes every seventh poem with a question, a technique that virtually disappears in the 1940s, when he seems to have ended only one poem out of sixty-four with a question, and roars back in the 1950s, when he ends one poem out of every five (5.41176471) with a question (seventeen for ninety-two poems). In the 1960s, which sees the production of new poems dramatically increase, he ends fifty out of 348 poems with a question, or roughly one in every seven (6.96). However, from 1960-1965, out of 203 poems, sixty-four end on a question, or one in every three (3.17). I am basing my calculations on Robert Graves, The Complete Poems in One Volume, ed. by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward (Manchester: Carcanet, 2000).

[23] We see the same critical self-evaluation, in ‘To Calliope’, published in Poems 1953 (London: Cassell, 1953), which concludes:

No: nothing reads so fresh as I first thought,
Or as you could wish –

Yet must I, when far worse is eagerly bought,
Cry stinking fish?

After 1953, Graves retained ‘To Calliope’ as an introduction to subsequent volumes of his collected poems up to and including his edition of 1961, which suggests that its importance reached beyond its humorous effect as hyperbolic modesty.

[24] Sonia Cavicchioli, The Tale of Cupid and Psyche: An Illustrated History, trans by Susan Scott (New York: Braziller, 2002), p. 47.

[25] The mirror world in ‘Alice’, ‘that lubberland of dream and laughter’ (line 34), is ‘Where Apuleius pastured his Gold Ass’ (line 36).

[26] Graves wrote his translation of Apuleius while working on The White Goddess, which quotes from a 1566 translation. Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves and The White Goddess, 1940-1985 (London: Orion, 1998), pp. 130-136 (p. 130). Although ‘The Face in the Mirror’ drew on the image of the ghost woman gazing into the broken mirror in ‘The Pier-Glass’, Graves will surely have been aware of the transformative image in The Transformations of Lucius, of Lucius, still in ass form, gazing out over the sea to behold Isis in the image of the moon:

A dazzling full moon was rising from the sea. It is at this secret hour that the Moon-goddess, sole sovereign of mankind, is possessed of her greatest power and majesty. She is the shining deity by whose divine influence not only all beasts, wild and tame, but all inanimate things as well, are invigorated; whose ebbs and flows control the rhythm of all bodies whatsoever, whether in the air, on earth, or below the sea. Of this I was well aware, and therefore resolved to address the visible image of the goddess, imploring her help; for Fortunate seemed at last to have made up her mind that I had suffered enough and to be offering me a hope of release.

Robert Graves. The Transformations of Lucius Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass: A New Translation (New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1983), pp. 262-63.

In ‘The Face in the Mirror’, Graves is likening his own awakening as a poet to Lucius’s imminent metamorphosis back into a human shape, which may hint at yet another possible meaning of ‘the face’ in the title, that of the Moon-Goddess.

[27] Ben Jonson’s use of ‘ravelin’ cited in the OED, in which he declares that John Beaumont’s Bosworth-Field needs no reviewer’s defence, suggests a precedent for Graves’s specifically literary usage of the word in ‘Down, Wanton, Down’. Additional internal evidence may be adduced to demonstrate Graves’s use of priapic imagery metaphorically to refer to literary matters:

Will many-gifted Beauty come

Bowing to your bald rule of thumb,

Or Love swear loyalty to your crown?

Be gone, have done! Down, wanton, down!

The carnivalesque trappings of the poem shouldn’t distract readers from the evidence that Graves is chiding himself not for natural inclinations (what would be the point?) but for having the temerity to aspire to transcend his animal nature in poetry, to possess the ‘crown of laurel’, even as such aspiration takes the gross and inconvenient form of a hardon. The earthy, mock-phallogocentric metaphors in ‘Down, Wanton, Down’ overlap with those of ‘Gardener’ (1927), a poem more openly concerned with aesthetic over-reaching, in, for example, the characterisation of the gardener’s ‘ass’s wit’, and ‘hairy-belly shrewdness’. The ‘bald rule of thumb’ used archly in ‘Down, Wanton, Down’ seems a transposition of that poem’s self-critical trope, ‘the very yard-stick of his own confusion’.

‘Have done’ in the poem’s final line, again nudges us to look deeper for the poem’s covert theme. Graves used ‘Have done’ three years earlier (1930) to reprove the invisible, intrusive reader in ‘The Reader Over My Shoulder’: ‘Know me, have done: I am a proud spirit | And you for ever clay. Have done!’ In each poem, the poet reproves the ‘clay’ on which the poem depends.

Graves valorises the analogy of tumescence and inspiration twenty years later in ‘The White Goddess’. The second stanza of this signature poem, following the picture-postcard section, concludes with a mesmerising, erotic description of her whom he would seek (‘Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips, | With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.’). Far from casual description, it is a codified evocation of sexuality: the pairs of consonants moving from soft ‘b’ to hard ‘c’, and the sibilant rhyme, possess a powerful, illocutionary force. And the beginning of the next stanza offers an image in response: ‘Green sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir’. Graves valorises the analogy of tumescence and inspiration twenty years later in ‘The White Goddess’. The second stanza of this signature poem, following the picture-postcard section, concludes with a mesmerising, erotic description of her whom he would seek (‘Whose eyes were blue, with rowan-berry lips, | With hair curled honey-coloured to white hips.’). Far from casual description, it is a codified evocation of sexuality: the pairs of consonants moving from soft ‘b’ to hard ‘c’, and the sibilant rhyme, possess a powerful, illocutionary force. And the next stanza offers a response: ‘Green sap of Spring in the young wood a-stir’. Graves is referring specifically and matter-of-factly to the excited male organ, his own erection. The trope of the Goddess as the life force, she who makes the blood run to harden the male sexual organ, is reinforced by the hardened verse, the twin spondees ‘Green sap’ and ‘young wood’; the analogy between sexual arousal and poetic inspiration is no less astonishing for being hidden in plain view.

In ‘The White Goddess’, Graves was not writing in the jocose, antic mood he adopts in ‘Down, Wanton, Down’, where comparable priapic imagery serves to deride his poetic presumption – parodied in a highly artificial, parodic Restoration style of writing. And it is presumption of course he lauds, back-handedly, in ‘The Face in the Mirror’. While occupying very different registers, ‘The White Goddess’, and ‘Down, Wanton, Down’ both unabashedly resort to primal even vulgar imagery to correlate the power of eros and the power of poetry, a parallel treated with greater subtlety and indirection in ‘The Face in the Mirror’.

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