Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ode to the West Wind” and Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror” both employ the poetic tools of apostrophe, the address to something that is intangible, and personification, the application of human characteristics to something inanimate. However, they form a paradox in the usage of these tools through the imagery they create. Both poets have breathed life into inanimate objects, however death and aging are the prominent themes within both of these works.
In “Ode to the West Wind”, Shelley personifies many of nature’s elements by attaching descriptions of remains of death that are typically human. He begins the poem with a simile by comparing the autumn leaves to ghosts. Though leaves are in fact, living things, the term “ghost” implies a spirit or presence from a living being who has passed on. To become a ghost, it is necessary to have a soul and this is specific to humans and other mammals. Shelley uses the idea of giving a soul to an inanimate object in the second stanza of his poem as well. In the fourth line, he uses angels as a metaphor for decaying leaves. Here, the reader is compelled to envision spirit beings falling from the sky with the rain and lightning. In another area of the poem where Shelley applies human death attributes, he states that each of the “winged seeds” is “like a corpse within its grave” (Charters, p. 871). Again, he gives us the image of a human who has died and is lying in he or she’s burial place.
In the third stanza of Shelley’s poem, he uses personification by assigning emotion to some of nature’s elements. In the eleventh line, Shelley declares that the “sea-blooms and the oozy woods” will “suddenly grow grey with fear”. The emotions he assigns are relative to the idea of death. These are the feelings that humans develop when they feel that death is near. Shelley has again, managed to give the reader an intense image of foliage shaking in their roots at the thought of the west wind’s approach.
As the poem progresses, Shelley puts a new twist on the idea of personification. Or, more accurately, Shelley reverses the idea of personification by attaching inanimate qualities to the person speaking in apostrophe form to the west wind. In the fifth stanza of the poem, the second line asks, “what if my leaves are falling like its own” (Charters, p. 872). Here, the reader imagines the speaker as a tree himself. Still, Shelley applies aspects of human dissolution to inanimate objects where the speaker avers that he or she’s thoughts are dead in the seventh line. In this line, the speaker has surrendered the idea of he or she’s metamorphosis into a tree, but still compares their thoughts to “withered leaves” (Charters, p. 872)
Finally, in the fourth to last line of the poem, the speaker asks that their thoughts be “scatter(ed) as from an unextinguished hearth ashes and sparks” (Charters, p. 872). While he doesn’t assign human characteristics to the speaker’s thoughts through words, Shelley does create another alternative to personification. He transforms the speaker’s intangible thoughts into something that can be held and more importantly, thrown. In these last few stanzas of the poem, Shelley still manages to leave the reader with a final reference to morbidity. The speaker’s request creates an undeniable image of a human’s ashes being scattered in the earth as some final rite of passage.
While Shelley’s poem contains elements of the personification of various inanimate items, Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror”, is written entirely in this form. The speaker of the poem is the mirror itself. Plath utilizes the idea of applying more emotional characteristics to this object than did Shelley. In the fourth line of the poem, the mirror claims that it is “not cruel, only truthful”. Obviously, honesty is a trait specific to humans, however Plath gives the reader an opportunity to make a decision for themselves about the alleged intentions of a mirror. When faced with one’s image within it, one is forced to acknowledge the inevitable display of age that a mirror reflects. Thus, the mirror can provoke emotion from he or she if the image is unfavorable and therefore deem the mirror as cruel.
Another aspect of personification in “Mirror” that differs from Shelley’s poem, is the application of human physical traits. In the fifth line, the mirror calls itself “the eye” (Charters, p.1105). Here, it is easy for the reader to accept this idea because the looking glass is comparable to that of an eye in that it reflects images. In the eighth line of Plath’s poem, the mirror claims to have a heart, however, this concept is not as easy for the reader to accept. Therefore, Plath seems to ask us to identify with the sentimentality the mirror has created over the wall that occupies its reflection for most of its time.
Though Sylvia Plath’s poem is not thematic in death as is Shelley’s poem, “Mirror” creates imagery in subtle references of aging. In the twelfth line, the mirror describes a woman who is “searching my reaches for what she really is”. Though the term “reaches” is ambiguous, there is a level of personification in this line. It will give the reader a picture of arms from the mirror extending outward toward the woman. In desperation of a different, younger image, the woman begins to cry. (Charters, p. 1105) The mirror acknowledges the process of age in the second to last line as well, by stating that “in me she has drowned a younger girl, and in me an old woman rises toward her day” (Charters, p. 1105).
Though both poems utilize the same tools, they do so in very different styles. Sylvia Plath used personification to encompass the entire poem by allowing the inanimate object to be the speaker itself. She also gives the object various physical and emotional traits that are specific to humans. Shelley’s poem, conversely, applies elements of personification to a few of the objects in his poem. Most of the human attributes Shelley gives to these objects are mainly metaphysical.
The paradox of Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror”, is that the mirror is given life to reflect the image of aging, and the sadness of the inevitability of death. Ironically, Shelley has managed to employ the tool of personification, not by giving life to an inanimate object, but by giving it death.