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Poetry Friday & The Other Side of a Mirror, by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge

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It’s Poetry Friday! Tricia is hosting at The Miss Rumphius Effect.

In my OLW research, I discovered Mary Coleridge, a Victorian-era poet and great-great-niece of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and her poem “The Other Side of a Mirror.” From what I’ve found about her online, it appears she published little of her work during her lifetime, never married, and is regarded as one of the best female poets of her time. After her death, her work was published to great praise. Overall, her novels and poems are reputed to be melancholy, to frequently include references to the supernatural, and to defy social conventions of her day.

“The Other Side of the Mirror” is interpreted by some as a contrast between the “angel woman” expected to be on display by proper Victorian women and the “monster woman” she suppresses, a writer who chafes at the cultural belief that creative pursuits are the domain of men. What do you think?

"All Is Vanity" (1892) by C. Allan Gilbert. In the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“All Is Vanity” (1892) by C. Allan Gilbert. In the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Mary Coleridge
I sat before my glass one day,
And conjured up a vision bare,
Unlike the aspects glad and gay,
That erst were found reflected there—
The vision of a woman, wild
With more than womanly despair.
Her hair stood back on either side
A face bereft of loveliness.
It had no envy now to hide
What once no man on earth could guess.
It formed the thorny aureole
Of hard, unsanctified distress.
Her lips were open—not a sound
Came through the parted lines of red.
Whate’er it was, the hideous wound
In silence and in secret bled.
No sigh relieved her speechless woe,
She had no voice to speak her dread.
And in her lurid eyes there shone
The dying flame of life’s desire,
Made mad because its hope was gone,
And kindled at the leaping fire
Of jealousy, and fierce revenge,
And strength that could not change nor tire.
Shade of a shadow in the glass,
O set the crystal surface free!
Pass—as the fairer visions pass—
Nor ever more return, to be
The ghost of a distracted hour,
That heard me whisper: —‘I am she!’

10 thoughts on “Poetry Friday & The Other Side of a Mirror, by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge”

  1. Diane Mayr says:

    She reminds me of a female counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe. Both wrote macabre poetry. Both died young. Mary was born 12 years after Poe’s death, so it could be possible that she was Poe reincarnated! (If you believe that stuff.) Creepy…

  2. Sally Murphy says:

    Wow. If I hadn’t read your suggested interpreaton I wouldn’t have been sure what to think. It is quite gruesome, but the idea that it is about her struggle to reconcile her creative side with her socially acceptable face works for me.

  3. Keri, the image you show is a familiar one to me. I have a collection of Harrison Fisher women in my home but have never thought of who they really represent. (Gilbert was another artist like Fisher who studies and used Victorian women as models.) The Victorian women were thought of homemakers but through the eyes of Mary Coleridge they become hauntingly real. This poem reveals a side to them that most people would not have been privy to.

  4. Donna Smith says:

    These two pair well together. Were they meant always to be? Did one create to the other? I remember seeing this image before, but not reading the poem.
    It is always fascinating to me that other people have thoughts and lives…I know that sounds odd, but maybe I’ll explain what I mean someday on my blog or in a poem. Too much for here.

  5. Shiver-worthy, Keri. Second time I’ve come across Mary Coleridge’s poetry this week; I should probably explore that! I’m finally reading MRS. POE by my friend Lynn Cullen, and your post expands those timeless curiosities… .

  6. tanita says:

    In college – in American and British Lit – we talked a lot about the Victorian ideals of “the angel in the house,” and how a woman’s nature, down from Eve, was supposedly this wanton and sinful thing which must at all costs be subdued. (Men, apparently, had no such inherent wildness? Or something. They weren’t too clear on that point, having much more time to spend pointing out women’s faults. A-hem.) I like this poem, because it’s like Munch’s “The Scream” in poetic form — just all the wild despair of identity and personhood a Victorian woman was forced to tamp down — how wise of her to know that she was really unhappy, and to express it in such a way.

  7. Tabatha says:

    It reminds me a little of Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, but instead of a painting showing the real, ugly self, it’s a mirror. Also, I just read Cinder…have you read that? In it, a queen takes down mirrors in her vicinity because she is able to create a glamour (in the magic sense) around herself that she is attractive, but mirrors show what she truly looks like.

  8. This poem makes an interesting companion to the poems the Poetry Sisters wrote about one of Picasso’s sculptures of a woman. There’s so much more to us than you can see on the surface. (hallelujah)

  9. js says:

    Hiya KCL – I’m usually the one with attention trained on the creepy stuff. Has the world gone mad???? L., ‘g., js

  10. “ghost of a distracted hour” – this is one of the phrases that got me today. Thank you for sharing this and such a visually arresting image to pair the poem with!

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