Self-Recognition and Mirrors (2)

Continuing an earlier post about self-recognition, here are the ‘glasses’ (i.e. mirrors) of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As I set out in that earlier post, a link has been made by psychologists between self-recognition and knowing others. It seemed to me then that Shakespeare sometimes tangles these things together very richly, as I think he does in the poems below.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 3

Look in thy , and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s , and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
      But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
      Die single, and thine image dies with thee.


Sonnet 22

My shall not persuade me I am old,
So long as youth and thou are of one date;
But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee
Is but the seemly raiment of my heart,
Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me:
How can I then be elder than thou art?
O, therefore, love, be of thyself so wary
As I, not for myself, but for thee will;
Bearing thy heart, which I will keep so chary
As tender nurse her babe from faring ill.
      Presume not on thy heart when mine is slain;
      Thou gavest me thine, not to give back again.


Sonnet 62

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
      ‘Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,
      Painting my age with beauty of thy days.


Sonnet 77

Thy will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look, what thy memory can not contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
      These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
      Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.


Sonnet 103

Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth,
That having such a scope to show her pride,
The argument all bare is of more worth
Than when it hath my added praise beside!
O, blame me not, if I no more can write!
Look in your , and there appears a face
That over-goes my blunt invention quite,
Dulling my lines and doing me disgrace.
Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well?
For to no other pass my verses tend
Than of your graces and your gifts to tell;
      And more, much more, than in my verse can sit
      Your own shows you when you look in it.

Here the speaker of the poem suggests that the young man (to whom most of the sonnets are addressed) should look in his mirror, see his own beauty, and then recognise the need to procreate – to replicate that beauty in another. A child would embody the mirror, and would allow the young man to continue knowing his present self in a future other.
The child-as-mirror idea is now pushed back a generation. The young man’s mother remembers her past, younger self in his beauty, knowing herself again through knowing another.
This mirror might show the speaker that time has passed, except that the young man’s beauty acts as a stronger indication that time cannot, must not, change the world. The other – the young man – is chosen as the true mirror in which to recognise oneself. Here the self / other relation is refigured around and against the mirror image.
The mythical figure Narcissus (who falls in love with his reflection in a pool, collapsing self-recognition and other-knowledge together) appears frequently in the Sonnets. Often he is a negative example for the young man not to follow. Here self-love rebounds on the speaker, who finds beauty reflected back onto his own self-recognition from the young man’s face. The mirror tells a truer story that the speaker still tries to resist.
More bitterly and anxiously now, the speaker tells the young man that the mirror will find him out eventually. An alternative reflective surface, another way in which to recognise oneself, is offered by paper: words, reading, writing, can carry a different imprint.
Only a good mirror (I mentioned 16th-century technological advances in my previous post), perhaps an unimaginably good mirror, can show wrinkles open like graves. Here the bitterness and anxiety are yet stronger: the mirror as memento mori.
The speaker pays tribute to the young man: his poetry can only ever be a poor reflection of his beauty. The mirror here is a truthful tautology that poetic ingenuity cannot beat.
The idea of poetry acting a mirror is ancient – from Plato and Aristotle onwards, the metaphor has been attractive as a way of capturing its imitation of life. In the case of this young man, though, no knowledge of him as an other can go beyond the knowledge of himself that his mirror offers. However, the figure of Narcissus and the recommendations of more concrete self-replication that come earlier in the sequence, are a bit haunting here.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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