One of the most common mistakes that readers make when analyzing novels, short stories, and poems is believing that the author is always the person speaking or telling the story. When writing, authors, more often than not, adapt personas. These are fictional perspectives that allow them to consider other ways of life, struggles, beliefs, and more. For example, an author who spent their life in the suburbs of the western United States who wants to write a story based in the 1500s in Europe. They are going to adopt a persona, no matter which point of view they’re writing in.
When analyzing a book or poem, it is better to consider the speaker as a “persona” than to immediately assume that the author is sharing their personal beliefs or experiences.
Persona Literary Definition
A persona is a specific perspective an author takes when writing. They might adopt the persona of another gender, ethnicity, or the perspective of a person living in another time period, another country, or even on another planet. Without personas, authors would be unable to write about anyone’s experience other than their own.
If, when reading poetry, a piece utilizes first-person pronouns like “my,” “me,” and “I,” it is easy to assume that the poet is speaking about their own experiences. But, more often than not, this is not the case. They are probably adopting a persona of another person whose life and troubles they want to explore.
Examples of Personas in Poetry
‘Mother to Son’ by Langston Hughes is a well-loved poem of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem was first published in December of 1922 in the magazine, Crisis. It was also included in Hughes’ collection, The Weary Blues, published four years later.
The poem is also a perfect example of how writers adopt personas in order to convey various life experiences different from their own. In this piece, Hughes adopts the persona of a mother speaking to her young son. Here are a few lines:
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
She spends the lines of the poem describing how her life has not been a “crystal stair.” Utilizing an extended metaphor, the mother encourages her son to keep climbing, keep turning corners, and continue persevering as he moves through the dark.
Discover more Langston Hughes poems.
‘The Wife’s Tale’ by Seamus Heaney was published in Door into the Dark in 1969. When the poem begins, the poet makes it clear that he is utilizing a persona – that of a farmer’s wife. Here are the first lines:
When I had spread it all on linen cloth
Under the hedge, I called them over.
The hum and gulp of the thresher ran down
And the big belt slewed to a standstill, straw
Hanging undelivered in the jaws.
After feeding the men, the other speaker (a man), who is likely the woman’s husband, takes her around the farm, making sure she sees the wonderful yield. From there, she looks out into the field and notes the way the “forks,” or pitchforks, look like javelins stuck in the ground. Her work is over, and after looking over the now full men, she starts home with her linen cloth. More than anything, the speaker in this poem is an observer of the world around her.
Read more Seamus Heaney poems.
This commonly read contemporary poem utilizes the persona of Mrs. Midas, the wife of the mythical King Midas. When starting this piece and seeing that the poem is written from a female perspective, it is easy to automatically assume that the speaker is the poet. But, with the context (and the title specifically), it immediately becomes clear that Duffy is writing from an invented persona.
She is considering the experiences of a mythical character, someone who is ultimately passed over in the explorations of the life and troubles of King Midas. Here are a few lines from Mrs. Midas’ perspective as she struggles to adapt to her husband’s new power, turning everything he touches into gold:
I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,
and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,
even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.
Discover more Carol Ann Duffy poems.
Authors use personas because not every literary work they create can be written from their own perspective and imbued with their own beliefs. An author who wants to write about someone else’s experience, especially a fictional person, is going to use a persona.
Understanding a persona in a poem or novel is important because it allows readers to differentiate between the “narrator” and the writer. The narrator is a carefully crafted character who is just as much a part of the book as any other well-defined character is. They will have their own struggles, opinions, and more.
Related Literary Terms
- First Person Point of View: a literary style in which the narrator tells a story about him or herself.
- Frame Story: a narrative within a narrative. It occurs when one character decides to tell another story to the other characters around him/her.
- Narrator: the voice that tells the story, whether that story is in the form of a poem or novel.
- Omniscient Narrator: a narrator who knows what’s happening at all times, and all points, of the story.
- Third Person Objective: uses the pronouns “he,” “she,” “they,” “them,” etc. The narrator does not, unlike the other third person perspectives, have any insight into the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
- Read: 10 of the Best Carol Ann Duffy Poems
- Watch: The Elements of a Poem
- Watch: The Speaker or Narrator