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!”
Mary Coleridge was a brilliant poet and despite her incredibly famous great-grand uncle Samuel Taylor Coleridge, she has remained largely undiscovered. She does not feature in anthologies in the same way her ancestor does, she is not as well-known as her contemporaries such as Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. It is true that she is beginning to creep into such works, but there is still much of her work to be unearthed and examined. ‘The Other Side of a Mirror’ is perhaps her most known piece of work and often invites a psychoanalysis reading. It is quite easy to see how the poem may be read as a manifestation of a woman’s hysteria as she sits in front of her hysteric reflection. However, as is the case with all poetry, there are other ways of looking at this piece.
I read the poem as an almost seance-like scene, in which the speaker “conjures” a spirit; the spirit of a wild woman. This woman is that which patriarchal Victorian society has oppressed into the margins, note her “wound” mouth, a visual sign of her forced silence.
This violence surrounding the mouth calls to mind the Classical figure of Philomela. The mythical figure is raped by Tereus, King of Thrace and he orders her to keep the crime to herself. Philomela disobeys and insists she will speak of what he has done to her. In a rage and desperate to keep her quiet, Tereus removes her tongue. Philomela still, will not be silenced; she tells of his crime through a tapestry which is sent to her sister Procne, who happens to be Tereus’s wife. The sisters seek revenge by murdering Tereus’s son and feeding him to the King. The sisters are transformed into birds -Procne a swallow and Philomela a nightingale – so that they may escape the King’s renewed rage.
The woman conjured by the speaker – like Philomela – cannot verbally speak and so we get her story of male oppression, not via a tapestry but the mirror. The poem itself works as another visual form through which a woman’s oppression is told. Within the first stanza, we are told that this is not simply a poem about hysteria, the woman is “wild / With more than womanly despair.” Coleridge is attacking the way in which Victorian society signed off any womanly ailment with hysteria. Perhaps, Coleridge seems to say throughout this poem, she is not hysteric but driven mad and suffering at the hands of patriarchal rule.
The religious imagery in the poem – “the thorny aureole/ Of hard unsanctified distress” – brings us to the patriarchal idea of feminity; the angel of the house. But this woman in the mirror is UNsanctified, she is the other side, not only of the mirror but of feminity. The woman is the free, strong, vocal, thinking woman that has been cast aside as hysteric or fallen by patriarchy. Until this conjuring, the woman has been locked away; “In silence and in secret bled”. Despite her abjection and although her eyes hold a “dying flame”, this woman is still full of “jealousy, and fierce revenge,/And strength that could not change nor tire.”
Like Philomela, this woman is ready to fight. She is ready to wreak havoc on the hegemony that has neglected her, tried to subdue her. She has, it seems, been waiting for her Procne, a sister to help her extract her revenge. She holds the conjurer prisoner, the speaker begs her to “set the crystal surface free!” In this line, we see the way in which the speaker is trapped by the patriarchal society herself; she does not wish to set the woman free, instead, she wishes the woman – the “wild”, ‘bad’ side of femininity – to free her. At this point, she would rather remain ignorant to woman’s blight than to resist.
Finally, the speaker, held at ransom by the fiery gaze of the wild woman, forced to face this side of her own feminity, whispers “I am she!”
This declaration is the only vocally spoken line of the poem and this is very significant. The only spoken words, “I am she”, shows the speaker recognising that this woman is a part of her, a part of every woman. The line contains a strong sense of female companionship and harkens back to the Classical sisters seeking revenge together.
The speaker recognises – though quietly – that this woman is the part of her, of every woman, that they have been made to ignore and neglect. Whether or not the speaker went on to dismantle patriarchy, we do not know. But what is important is the transgression of the fallen woman into the domestic home as the speaker identifies with her.
The fallen woman has stepped over the crystal surface and into the carpeted bedroom.