Before the Mirror

By Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard 1823–1902
Now like the Lady of Shalott,
   I dwell within an empty room,
And through the day and through the night
   I sit before an ancient loom.

And like the Lady of Shalott
   I look into a mirror wide,
Where shadows come, and shadows go,
   And ply my shuttle as they glide.

Not as she wove the yellow wool,
   Ulysses’ wife, Penelope;
By day a queen among her maids,
   But in the night a woman, she,

Who, creeping from her lonely couch,
   Unraveled all the slender woof;
Or, with a torch, she climbed the towers,
   To fire the fagots on the roof!

But weaving with a steady hand
   The shadows, whether false or true,
I put aside a doubt which asks
   ‘Among these phantoms what are you?’

For not with altar, tomb, or urn,
   Or long-haired Greek with hollow shield,
Or dark-prowed ship with banks of oars,
   Or banquet in the tented field;

Or Norman knight in armor clad,
   Waiting a foe where four roads meet;
Or hawk and hound in bosky dell,
   Where dame and page in secret greet;

Or rose and lily, bud and flower,
   My web is broidered. Nothing bright
Is woven here: the shadows grow
   Still darker in the mirror’s light!

And as my web grows darker too,
   Accursed seems this empty room;
For still I must forever weave
   These phantoms by this ancient loom.

Source: She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (University of Iowa Press, 1997)

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Poet Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard 1823–1902

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Living, Disappointment & Failure, Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Poetry & Poets, Mythology & Folklore


Poet, fiction writer, and essayist Elizabeth Drew Barstow Stoddard was born and raised in Mattapoisset, Massachusetts. The daughter of a shipbuilder, Stoddard was educated at Wheaton Female Seminary. She married poet Richard Stoddard in 1851 and together they had three children, two of whom died as infants. The Stoddards’ New York City home was a gathering place for local poets, and Elizabeth began to submit her own poetry, . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Disappointment & Failure, Arts & Sciences, Reading & Books, Poetry & Poets, Mythology & Folklore

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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