‘Identity’ is a poem that focuses and explores the concept of a person’s image not just their physical appearance but their personality. (which when you consider the title of the poem isn’t really a big surprise!) throughout the poem, the narrator explores what makes a person and concludes that a lot of how a person is, is how we perceive them. The fairness of this is also discussed. In many ways, ‘Identity’ is about perception and how people are really just what we want to see in them. Just in the same way that two different people can look at a painting and one love it whilst the other hates it, so is the case with our individual perception of people. There is an underlying notion that people are actually the sum of what we make them out to be and an even greater truism that sometimes people aren’t in fact what we see in them!
Form and Tone
‘Identity’ is written in free verse and is separated into three stanzas. The stanzas are not all of equal length. The first two stanzas contains six lines and the final stanza contains eight. The poem does not have a discernible rhyming pattern. Which in itself is quite interesting as Jennings often used rhyme. The poem is about love. It is not dark, nor a happy celebration of love but more a reflection on the interactions between the narrator and their lover. The poem is written almost like a stream of consciousness with the narrator correcting themselves as they continue to think out loud.
Analysis of Identity
When I decide I shall assemble you
Or, more precisely, when I decide which thoughts
Of mine about you fit most easily together,
Then I can learn what I have loved, what lets
Light through the mind. The residue
Of what you may be goes. I gather
The first three lines of this stanza of ‘Identity’, which can be read in full here, are really interesting and reveal a lot about what type of poem we are dealing with. The narrator is ostensibly trying to assert themselves over their lover by declaring “When I decide I shall assemble you” of course this isn’t a physical assembly! It’s not like the narrator has to put the pieces of their lover together ala Frankenstein’s monster! This is further explained as the narrator talks about piecing together their thoughts on the other person. The fact that they have to explain what they are saying almost takes away the assertiveness they established with the first line. The effect of this is that the narrator’s sense of authority is diminished somewhat.
The fourth line gives us some clue as to the person that the narrator is addressing. It becomes clear that the person has been in a relationship with the narrator as they are described as having been “loved” it is suggested then that the relationship is being reanalyzed by the narrator. They want to discover “what lets Light through the mind” the meaning of this is ambiguous but it could mean that they want to see how they make them feel happy. Light is associated with positive emotions (generally) however it is talking of light going through the mind. Does this mean that their loved one takes away happiness? Perhaps the ambiguity here is deliberate.
The narrator then continues to say “The residue of what you may be goes” I think what this is trying to say that their original vision of this person, IE what they may be, is fading, hence it being described as a residue. I think the insinuation here is that the narrator is starting to see the person for what they are, not for what they imagined them to be.
Only as lovers or friends gather at all
Picture of lover or friend that is not either.
The first two lines of this stanza appear to suggest that the gathering of information, or the assembly of people, as it is phrased is only possible with lovers or friends. Presumably, this means that a person can’t truly figure someone out unless they are close to them, which seems a rational notion.
The narrator continues to give their definition of what making friends is. They believe that making friends is about combining what your personal image of a person is, how you think they are with your passion for that person. I think the narrator is alluding to the idea that this is not an accurate portrayal of that person. I think maybe the suggestion that is being made is that you cannot really understand somebody unless they are your friend or lover, but when you are in that relationship with somebody your view of that person is then obscured anyway. So I guess it’s kind of like a catch 22 situation.
So then assemble me,
Your exact picture firm and credible,
And, what is more,
Is all we make each other when we love.
The third stanza of ‘Identity’ starts with a very different tone. It’s as if the narrator has developed a new resolve after reflecting on the nature of how people truly are and they have decided to stop analyzing it quite so much. They are saying to their love, come and create an image of me! They don’t want to disappoint their lover but they know that the view they will have of them will be just as distorted as their own view. But rather than dismiss this due to a perceived falseness the narrator has decided to give in to this idea, even to embrace it.
In the fifth line, they make a very provocative claim and that is that it doesn’t really matter as long as their love is as true as they put across. This is a really interesting concept. The narrator is effectively saying “I know you aren’t quite what I think you are, but that is not your fault and the same is true in reverse. It doesn’t matter though as long as your love is true.” What is particularly powerful. The narrator is able to overcome the part of their mind that is overly analytical and embrace a concept which must be scary to somebody with such a high level of perception. They then go on to say that this is all that they can be asked to answer. Presumably, they will no longer get frustrated when their partner fails to live up to what they thought they would be.
About Elizabeth Jennings
Elizabeth Jennings was an English poet who lived for most of her life in Oxford. She is not considered an innovator when it comes to her poetic style more a traditionalist. Her trademark would appear to be lyric poetry, having said that this particular poem is not an example of that. She was a member of a poetry group that referred to themselves as the movement. Also in this group were fellow poets: Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn. You could describe Jennings as prolific having written an impressive 30 poetry collections over the course of her career.