A Hand Mirror: Poem by Walt Whitman - Summary Analysis

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Hold it up sternly-see this it sends back, (who is it? is it you?)
Outside fair costume, within ashes and filth,
No more a flashing eye, no more a sonorous voice or springy step,
Now some slave’s eye, voice, hands, step,
A drunkard’s breath, unwholesome eater’s face, venerealee’s flesh,
Lungs rotting away piecemeal, stomach sour and cankerous,
Joints rheumatic, bowels clogged with abomination,
Blood circulating dark and poisonous streams,
Words babble, hearing and touch callous,
No brain, no heart left, no magnetism of sex;
Such from one look in this looking-gla ss ere you go hence.
Such a result so soon-and from such a beginning!


      Introduction. In his earlier poem This Compost the poet has lauded the capacity of nature to produce the beautiful out of the foul or shameful; in this poem A Hand Mirror, of twelve lines composed four years later, “he is smitten with the dreadful conviction of having, in his own being, produced the foul and the shameful out of the potentially beautiful.”

      Summary. If we hold up A Hand Mirror against the fairly good looking external features of a man, what we are likely to view within will be a row of ugly, filthy disgusting ingredients, the lengthy catalog of which given by the poet is sure to make us shudder. The healthy freshness and the magnetic allurement of boyhood and youth changes into senile decay and diseased decrepitude. The poet wonders in the closing line:

Such a result so soon-and from such a beginning.

      Critical Analysis. The well-known critic who drew our attention to the contrast between the poem This Compost and A Hand Mirror has volunteered the information that the period around 1860 was one of melancholy and sadness for Whitman. Apart from his political disillusion over the choice of a candidate for the Presidency, Whitman had a personal loss along with a profound sense of guilt when a homosexual affair ended abruptly.

      The poet sees many ugly things within, which he calls “ashes and filth’’ - rheumatic joints, clogged bowels, “blood circulating dark and poisonous” and so on.

      They say that when Prince Gautama of the Sakya clan saw instances of sickness, old age and death he fled from his palace in search of a panacea for all these evils and performed a penance in the forest. We fail to see the brain, the heart, the magnetism of sex in the aging body. Surely the poem makes us sit up and ponder over certain aspects of life’s problems.

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