David Palatinus: On "Anthropomorphism and Spectrality in Plath"

The box is locked, it is dangerous.[1]

I have to live with it overnight

And I can’t keep away from it.

There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.

There is only a little grid, no exit.

(“The Arrival of the Bee Box”)[2]



A hauntology of tropes?

In his Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric, Paul de Man refers to the lyric as “the instance of represented voice.”[3] But when it comes to the representation of voice, or, rather, instances of the represented voice, one has to bear in mind that the verbal presence traceable in confessional poetry (be it written or spoken) posits the spectrality of a subject that is manifest in the act of speaking—or hearing, more specifically, overhearing: as Jonathan Culler reminds us of the famous aphorism by John Stuart Mill: “the lyric is not heard, it is overheard.”[4]Thus, the voice is always-already linked to (the specter of) a speaking (or hearing) subject. Or, as seen from a reverse perspective, the only way for the self to become (poetically) manifest is to acquire some form of voice. One might argue that this phono-centric hauntology of the self is caught up in a tension between corporeality, the question of how real or material the speaking voice is, and the agency that discloses its representation as ultimately anthropomorphic. An underlying rhetorical reading of Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry provides an example of practice for this spectrality of the self that is speaking—or is spoken for.

To begin with, I suggest an approach to Plath’s poems “Mirror,” “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “Face Lift,” and “Ravaged Face” where the examination of the mode of expression is linked to the rhetoric of figures and tropes. One classical figure underlying the representation of voice is prosopopoeia. This trope is of particular significance to my argument. The power of speech as a way of self-assertion, or as a way of questioning one’s identity, or simply asking questions about one’s identity, is a central motif in Plath’s poems. A closer examination of the phenomenology of the voice (and, consequently, that of the representation and the construction of the self) appears to be all the more justified in the case of poems such as “Mirror” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” where the underlying rhetorical mode counter-operates these constructs, either because the actual speaking voice present in the poem is exposed (and opposed) to muteness, or because there is a disjunction between the voice and the speaking face. The question remains: on what (if any) grounds can this opposition and disjunction be accounted for?

Paul de Man’s definition of prosopopoeia is built around the assumed presence of a voice and a face. In “Autobiography as Defacement,” de Man identifies this “power of speech” conferred upon an otherwise “absent, deceased or voiceless entity” as the trope of prosopopoeia,[5] and argues that “voice assumes mouth, eye, and finally face, a chain that is manifest in the etymology of the trope’s name, prosopon poiein, to confer a mask or a face.”[6] In this respect, prosopopoeia appears to be an interpretive act, the result of a cognitive decision articulated in an act of language in order to inscribe the body. Cynthia Chase takes up the idea of giving a face to a name, and argues that for de Man, the interpretation of prosopopoeia “is a reading.” But it is not just prosopopoeia that is read as giving a face in de Man; he also reads a face as being given by prosopopoeia.[7] Chase also points out that, for de Man, the face is not an equivalent of but the precondition for the existence of the self,[8] bringing the issue of subjectivity and possible subject-constructs into play. What prosopopoeia shows is that any interpretive discourse is eventually a fiction; that is to say, just like a mask, it is fabricated, and as such it is prone to a series of semiotic and semantic distortions.



I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever I see I swallow immediately

Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful‚

The eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long

I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over.


Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

I am important to her. She comes and goes.

Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman

Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

The poem “Mirror,” in a coherent rhetorical reading, can be regarded as “par excellence” prosopopoeia: faces being conferred upon a mirror—by itself. The poem begins by taking a confessional tone of voice, acknowledging that the mirror reflects “whatever it sees.” It is, of course, unnecessary to recall the semantic density of the mirror as a cultural symbol, or to draw attention to the significant, almost mystical role the mirror-image plays in a variety of discourses, from mythology to philosophy, from psychoanalysis to theories of subjectivity, representation, and perception. Yet, it is important to remember that in Plath’s poetry, the mirror (and the mirror-image) becomes an alternative of the face or the mask, and is usually associated with questions of self-assertion and self-identification. It is not only the site of speech, but also that of vision: very often standing for the mother’s gaze, and sometimes (this poem is no exception) it threatens with “eating away the life of the woman who gazes in it.”[9] But one could run the reverse of the previous argument as well: if the mask that is given functions also as an image of a face, then prosopopoeia, the giving of a face, becomes really a re-presentation of an image by means of words, linking the seeable and the sayable to one another. Moreover, if one takes into consideration the original purpose of the mask, one may also recognize its dual purpose: that is, to conceal the face on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to constitute a new face by highlighting its features.

This dichotomy of concealment and revelation, inside and outside, presence and absence, construction and de-construction seems to underpin the tension that characterizes the tone of “Mirror” as well. A tension between merger and disjunction exists where the images of merger between the mirror-reflection and what is being reflected are opposed to the images of disjunction: “whatever I see I swallow immediately” and “I have looked at it [the opposite wall] so long / I think it is a part of my heart” as opposed to “I meditate on the opposite wall” and “Faces and darkness separate us over and over.” The mirror as such appears to possess no substance outside the frame of this reflective disjunction. Both the mirror and the face are constructs of an act of language and therefore exist only as figures. From a semantic perspective, the mirror standing alone—that is, without anything to reflect—is therefore un-interpretable and unrealistic. It is both empty—that is, invisible—and mute. It stands in the poem as the signifier of a mere, meaningless materiality carrying no element of identification, as a frame of simulation, an empty space of signification that needs to be filled in.

Everything that “faces” the mirror will appear in it, will assume a visible form—but is only accessible as Otherness to the I that looks in the mirror. In other words, only the presence of a reflected entity, the presence (or the conferring) of another face can constitute appropriate grounds for the understanding of the phenomenology of the voice that, paradoxically, “appears” in the mirror. The second stanza reveals the mode of operation of the prosopopoeia: a woman’s face is conferred upon the mirror. “A woman bends over me, / Searching my reaches for what she really is” and “Every morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.” But what the reflection gives form to is not simply the mirror-image of a face. It is the secrecy of the self: the merger and disjunction of the young girl and the old woman. What happens here is precisely the “voicing up” of the mute image. As a result, the disjunction of speech and vision is subverted by virtue of a representational illusion: prosopopoeia, as a rhetorical figure, reinvests the mute object into speech/language, and induces an inter-subjectivity which is, paradoxically, mobilized by the repositioning of the gaze.

Jacques Lacan places the gaze at the center of the formation of the ego,[10] and defines the mirror stage as a moment in a child’s development when he assumes his identity through the primordial recognition of his image in a mirror.[11] Lacan explains that to hold the image of himself in his gaze, the child leans forward to bring back an “instantaneous aspect of the image.” He further argues that “we have only to understand the mirror stage as anidentification…a transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image.”[12] The child learns to distinguish between his or her own face and body, though the latter is given only as Gestalt,[13] and the image of an Other, especially that of the mother. Despite this alienation, as Lacan calls it, children are able to retain the integrity of their self-image because they realize that the gaze that determines the image “is outside.” Thus the child’s identity is formed under the gaze of others. The other significant aspect of the mirror stage, which might eventually explain the woman’s obsession with the mirror-image, is precisely the alienation that created a split within the subject. As Carole-Anne Tyler indicates, “the subject can never reconcile the split between itself and its mirror imago, the eye which sees and the eye which is seen, the I who speaks and the I who is spoken, the subject of desire and the subject of demand.”[14] Psychoanalysis discloses the visual aspect of identity-formation and reveals that the self-image is eventually the conflation of one’s own gaze directed at one’s own body appearing in the mirror, and the outside gaze of the other. If the mirror’s gaze is meant to be constitutive of this integrity, superimposed as the source of approval and confirmation, the reflection in the water, conversely, denotes disintegration, disapproval, and loss. It extends beyond the boundaries of the mirror stage and is used metonymically and denotes the gaze of the other. Jacques Derrida explains this exchange in the Gift of Death in the following words:

How can another see into me, into my most secret self, without my being able to see in there myself and without my being able to see him in me? And if my secret self, that which can be revealed only to the other…is a secret that I will never reflect on, that I will never know or experience or possess as my own, then what sense is there in saying that it is “my” secret, or in saying more generally that a secret belongs, that it is proper to or belongs to some “one,” or to some other who remains someone?… A secret doesn’t belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place. The question of the self: who am I not in the sense of who am I but rather who is this I that can say who? What is the I and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the I trembles in secret?[15]

The image of the young girl comes to signify the secret of an ideal(ized) self-image that only exists in the form ofdesire. What the rising fish comes to symbolize, therefore, is the spectrality of the self, the haunting of that irretrievable moment of identification where the self recognizes itself (or its self) in the other. The poem can therefore be read as a prosopopoeia that addresses the spectrality of both self and other by conferring a face upon an inanimate entity. In “Mirror,” the representation of voice is interwoven with the giving (or conferring) of a face in an intricate way. The voice goes through a gradual process of transubstantiation, as a result of which it is no longer—or at least, not exclusively—the voice that plays a central part in the interpretation but rather the different manifestations of the conferred face. The poem conceptualizes an inter-play between the appearance and disappearance of the face (or faces), which sharpens the rhetoric, re-inscribing the secrecy of identification in the Symbolic via the rhetoric of tropes.


The seeable and the sayable

To be able to understand the significance of the mirror acquiring a face, two other poems need to be addressed briefly, wherein the figure of prosopopoeia, the manipulation of the face, as it were this time, becomes crucial. “The Ravaged Face” delineates a “disfigured” face. The textual presence of the “leaky eye,” “the swollen nose,” and the “mouth skewered on a groan” contribute to the stipulation of the corpo-reality of a physical face. The disfiguration of the face becomes possible through a somewhat ekphrastic description in which the voice coupling with the image of the face (this “unutterable chagrin,” “maudlin,” and “groan”) plays an essential part. In “Face Lift,” the description is more indirect: the re-construction of the face is conveyed indirectly, through the description of the external details of medical procedure and the self’s experiences in the hospital:

For five days I lie in secret, 

Tapped like a cask, the years draining into my pillow.


Skin doesn’t have roots, it peels away like paper.

When I grin, the stitches tauten. I grow backward. I’m twenty,


Now she's done for, the dewlapped lady

I watched settle, line by line, in my mirror—

Old sock-face, sagged on a darning egg.

They’ve trapped her in some laboratory jar.

Let her die there, or wither incessantly for the next fifty years,

Nodding and rocking and fingering her thin hair.

Mother to myself, I wake swaddled in gauze,

Pink and smooth as a baby.

The figure of prosopopoeia is obvious in both cases, and each poem aims at the visualization of a face, and the description (direct or indirect) is subject to rendering the facial appearance palpable. The trope not only in-scribes the image of the face, but it also a-scribes to the image a narrative of its own, a narrative of fabrication which, in return, becomes the trace of the disappearance of the original face. What the new face eventually restores by reversing corporeal decay is the narrative of death. There is a similar retroactive movement in “Lady Lazarus,” where the temporality of death is reversed, and instead of a narrative of decomposition, the poem mobilizes the images of re-composition: “Soon, soon the flesh / The grave cave ate will be / At home on me.” “Lady Lazarus” openly juxtaposes the image of a corpse that speaks and the spectacularity of a miracle. In contrast, “Mirror” is only able to assert the presence of an image of a face (a mask of a mask), without attempting any delineation of its features. The face as mirror-reflection only exists in the form of inscription, not in the description thereof. The face is “only” face, and, consequently, when written into these texts, it is “only” a figure insofar as it is “given by an act of language.”[16] The poem “Mirror,” on the basis of its own underlying figurativity, thus reads as the prosopopoeia of prosopopoeia, since the image of the mirror, too, “is only a figure,” given by an act of language—and so is the poem itself.

Figuration takes on a different form in “The Moon and The Yew Tree.” In terms of the original interrelation of voice and face posited in and by our preliminary definition of prosopopoeia, this particular poem marks an even more radical disjunction. If the faces delineated in “The Ravaged Face” and “Face Lift” and “Mirror” are all the results of figurations of language, and as such, depend on verbal manifestation (that is to say, voice), the faces in “The Moon and the Yew Tree” are irrevocably mute, deprived of the ability to speak. They are only capable of provoking meaningful communication by means of asserting their own presence: “The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right […] it is quiet / with the O-gape of complete despair” and “The face of the effigy bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.” The way de Man sees it, the significance of possessing a face resides in the following: “Man can address and face other men…, because he has a face, but he has a face only because he partakes of a mode of discourse that is neither entirely natural nor entirely human.”[17] The utterance (“I live here”) signifying the position of the self within the universe, within nature, becomes meaningful in the prospect of a location where the speaking voice may (or may not) be at home. It seems as if the poem is trying to counterpoint a descriptive and predicative mode of verbality against the prosopopoeia conferring a(n otherwise mute) face on the entities surrounding the subject. But no such reconciliation is possible. Instead, the text features a hypogrammatic dispersal of faces (or their traces, like the O-gape of the moon, or the eyes that follow the towering shape of the tree). The face here is not merely a prosopopoeia, but rather a form of material inscription, whose materiality is mobilized in the stiffness of the hands and faces of the saints, in a way similar to the description of the stone face of the man in “The Ravaged Face.” The hypogram, by the textual dispersal of the face (or faces), eventually functions against the figuration in the prosopopoeia: de Man’s interpretation of hypogram includes the meaning “to underscore by means of makeup the features of a face.”[18] In the dispersal, the hypogram does underscore the facial features of the  prosopopoeia on the one hand, but on the other hand, by displaying the “disparity between the figural and material modes of being of the sign, between figure and inscription,”[19] it directs our attention to the dependence of prosopopoeia on the materiality of language (in this case, the text). The significance of the counter-functioning of the hypogram derives not only from its ability to oppose the muteness of writing to the voice of the speaking subject, nor does it only imply “the annihilation of the phenomenality of meaning that it seeks or appears to ensure”[20]—rather, the hypogram, at the same time, effaces the possibilities of the representation of voice, too. As Chase formulates, “face is a figure,” and “voice is a fiction, arising from the figure of face.”[21]Disfiguration thus goes together with the elimination of fiction, too, leaving but muteness behind: “the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness and silence.” The rhetorical reading of the prosopopoeia, consequently, is always a misreading, the giving of face stands as de-facement, and the representation of voice as de-voicing. What is left behind as the result of such a reading is but the “empty” materiality of the text, closing upon itself as self-affirming and self-representing discourse. In this sense, prosopopoeia recapitulates the différance between the two systems of signification, the seeable and the sayable. Writing, as graphé, ultimately renders the muteness of death in a visible, spatial, material form.

The question is, then, whether there can be a paradigm, complementary to the former one, in which this closed and self-generating system that constitutes reading as misreading could be surpassed. One possible answer could be the interpretation of reading itself as prosopopoeia, motivated by de Man’s own thoughts concerning the interpretability of the hypogram. Here we seek the possibilities of a transformation, a direction of reading that, from the materiality of the text, the perception of the lexicality and grammaticality of the hypogram, leads back to the rhetoric of tropes. As de Man asks, how do these readings “confront the trope which threatens to dismember or to disfigure the lexicality and grammaticality of the hypogram, namely prosopopoeia which…is the very figure of the reader and of reading?”[22] As we could see, de Manian rhetorical reading is led back to its own material preconditions. We could say that reading, in this sense, is ultimately recursive. But can this recursion have any significance with respect to the interpretation of reading as prosopopoeia? As regards the incommensurability of text and voice, Chase points out that “our perception of voice is entirely bound up with a concept of comprehension conceived on the model of an exchange between an author and a reader; that concept…has to be actualized in a text.… De Man’s readings are designed…to show how this actualization of voice is undercut, how the process of reception is at odds with the text’s production as writing.”[23] The materiality of the text in this paradigm is not experienced in a positivistic way. The muteness of the material, the emptiness of the sign regenerates a different kind of (or even a superimposed) reading, a reading of reading which, in return, posits the presence not only of a speaking, but this time that of a reading, subject. Literary anthropology describes the need of interpretation as an underlying anthropological drive. The question of whether there is a way to reestablish the immediacy of aesthetic experience in the world of art may be farfetched, but its relevance resides in the fact that apparently no theory of response can eliminate the notion of subjectivity, as both interpretation and aesthetic experience are bound by, and to, the spectrality of the subject. Language as materiality, as medium, and as that which partakes in the construction of subjectivity is thus rendered part of a performative process[24] wherein performance is closely linked to the dichotomy of an immediate participation and controlled distance.

But how do these insights apply to the interpretation of the poems? In the last stanza of “Face Lift,” the “dewlapped lady” settling line by line in the mirror can be read in a “performative way” in which “line by line” refers not only to the frown lines and wrinkles indicating the gradual aging of the face, but also to the act of reading andwriting—line by line. Prosopopoeia here not only is operational on the level of tropes, but it is also an act of performance, a trope of reading and writing, the seeable and the sayable, the agency of both the phone and the graphe. In the third stanza of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” the movement of the eye (upward) may be interpreted as the plain figuration of sense-perception or of a mental process, but the words “lift” and “find” seem to suggest more than just the apperception of some view or sight. The movement of the eye can be associated with reading as such because a direct anthropomorphisation follows in the next line: “the moon is my mother.” In other words, the movement of the eye following the tree leads to the moon, and the anthropomorphization of the moon as “mother” becomes a metaphor of reading itself. The duality of performance (the immediate participation and the controlled distance) postulates an underlying moment of irony: while the reading of reading gives rise to the mediation of the reader’s subjectivity, it is promptly distanced from itself insofar as its reading is unveiled as prosopopoeia. In other words, prosopopoeia as performance discloses itself as the representation of the reader’s voice (and face), which, at the same time, reveals its underlying dependence on the immediate materiality of language.


Chase, Cynthia. “Giving a Face to a Name: de Man’s Figures.” In Decomposing Figures: Rhetorical Readings in The Romantic Tradition, 82-112. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Culler, Jonathan. “Apostrophe.” In The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, 149-171. London: Routledge, 1992.

de Man, Paul. “Autobiography as Defacement.” In The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 67-82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

———. “Hypogram and Inscription.” In The Resistance to Theory, 27-53. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. Gift of Death, translated by David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: Athlone, 1991.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection, translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. An Introduction to Visual Culture. London: Routledge, 1999.

Plath, Sylvia. Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes. London: Faber and Faber, 1981.

Tyler, Carole-Anne. “Passing: Narcissism, Identity, and Difference.” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 6, no. 2–3 (1994): 212–48.


[1] An earlier version of this essay was presented at the Varieties of Voice: 3rd International Conference of the Belgian Association of Anglicists in Higher Education, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, in 2006. 

[2]  Unless indicated otherwise, all references are to Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems.

[3] de Man, “Anthropomorphism and Trope in the Lyric,” 261.

[4] Culler, “Apostrophe,” 152.

[5] de Man, “Autobiography as Defacement,” 75–76.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chase, “Giving a Face to a Name,” 84.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Holbrook, Sylvia Plath, 142.

[10] Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture, 164.

[11] Lacan, Écrits, 1–2.

[12] Ibid., 2.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Tyler, “Passing,” 218.

[15] Derrida, Gift of Death, 92.

[16] Chase, “Giving a Face to a Name,” 85.

[17] de Man, “Autobiography as Defacement,” 90.

[18] de Man, “Hypogram and Inscription,” 44.

[19] Chase, “Giving a Face to a Name,” 99.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 88.

[22] de Man, “Hypogram and Inscription,” 45.

[23] Chase, “Giving a Face to a Name,” 88–89.

[24] Cf. K. L. Pfeiffer, Das Mediale und das Imaginäre (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1991), 60–61, and Wolfgang Iser, The Fictive and The Imaginary (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 158–67.



Criticism Overview
Title David Palatinus: On "Anthropomorphism and Spectrality in Plath" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author David Palatinus Criticism Target Sylvia Plath
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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Contexts No Data Tags Anthropomorphism, voice, tropes, de Man, Derrida, face, mask, mirror-stage, prosopopoeia, self, subjectivity

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