Saturday, 30 January 2016

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass' - Elizabeth Teft

“Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?
Or, urged by haste to finish, could not stay?
Or dressed with all her store some perfect she,
So lavish there, she’d none to spare for me?”

'On Viewing Herself in the Glass'
Elizabeth Teft
(1747)

It’s not a new thing, the experience of looking in a mirror and feeling somewhat dissatisfied with the view.  But in this wonderful mid-eighteenth-century sonnet, Elizabeth Teft succinctly constructs the perfect self-affirming response. 

It all begins with a blunt rhetorical question (that’s a question addressed to nobody, just like when you talk to your mirror in the morning): ‘Was Nature angry when she formed my clay?’  Basically, she’s trying to think of some reason why she doesn’t look as great as she’d like.  I especially enjoy the image of a kind of pre-life production line, with ‘Nature’ personified as some kind of creative artist who, having ‘dressed with all her store some perfect she’, has nothing pretty left in her workshop to give to the poet. 

There is an attempt at indifferent impartiality in the next line – ‘I oft converse with those she’s deemed to grace’ – or is she just being ever so slightly bitchy there?  Nature has, after all, only been ‘deemed to grace’ these women ‘With air and shape, fine mien, and charming face’.  The mirror, or glass, is personified here as it is able to hear these women address their own reflections with the rather affected exclamation that they are ‘strange, unpolished thing[s]’.  The poet is restrained though – she never ‘once upraid[s]’ because (here comes the slightly catty part again folks) ‘Conscious I am that transient charms will fade’.  In all fairness, though, she does allow that their ‘beauty gives delight’ and that it is ‘wond’rous pleasing to the sight’. 

Ultimately, the final couplet makes up for any peevish envy.  Since her looks are ‘defective’, she prays, please ‘Heaven, be so kind / With never-fading charms to dress my mind’.  And this is really what makes this such a perfect poem, as the poet accepts that even if she was beautiful it wouldn’t last forever, and through that acceptance learns to seek the higher and much more important goal of beautifying her mind.  In the tradition of sonnets, there is usually a change of tone after either the eighth or the twelfth line (technically known as the volta).  Here, the definite change before the final couplet becomes also a question of shifting the discussion from women’s bodies to a woman’s own individual journey to improve her mind.  Timeless, isn’t it?

You can read this poem:

(Poetry Nook – a nice, free, online source of poetry.  Here’s where to start if you want to get reading this poem real fast!  This site also features some of Teft’s other poetry, all well worth a read!)

(You can read two of Elizabeth Teft’s other poems here, though not the one the blog post is about)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
(available from numerous book shops online and on the high street: an truly masterful volume! Difficult to say how much I enjoy this book… ) 

About Elizabeth Teft

I was going to put a bit of biographical info here, but sadly, as Roger Lonsdale writes, ‘Little is known of “Elizabeth Teft of Lincoln’, except that she published Orinthia’s Miscellanies in London in 1747’.  But hey, that’s what researchers are for!  Maybe one day more information will be uncovered about this talented writer.

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