The word “persona” comes from the Latin meaning “the mask of an actor”. It is usually connected to dramatic works perfumed on stage and the character an actor is engaging with. The word is also tied to the phrase “dramatis personae” which is the list of characters at the beginning of a play.
In a broader sense, someone’s persona is their outward-facing personality. That which they put on in order to address others. It is in some part-fictional although there may be parts of someone’s persona that are true/genuine. This is particularly true when it comes to the term in literature. The “persona” that a writer uses is connected to the perspective from which they are writing.
Purpose of a Persona
A common mistake made by those who are first learning to analyze poetry is assuming that a first-person narrator is necessarily the voice of the poet. More often than not this assumption is false. Writers often take on personas in order to write about experiences, beliefs, ideas, and people who they have no history with. When a writer uses the first person pronoun it is safer to assume, unless there is evidence to the contrary, that the speaker is not the poet but someone the poet created.
The narrative voice a poet uses is crucial when trying to understand what a poem is about. This is particularly true for writers such as T.S. Eliot and Robert Browning who are known today for their clever use of personas to speak on a wide range of subjects and even compromised mental states.
Examples of Personas in Poetry
Example #1 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot
Published in 1915 in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is Eliot’s most famous poem and one of the best examples in poetry of a persona. Eliot crafts the character Prufrock in this poem, and in others. He is a character who is overcome with feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and desperation while living in a ragged and incomprehensible cityscape. Take a look at these lines:
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
Throughout this poem, Eliot employs powerful images and figurative language to paint a mental image of this character’s perceptions and experiences. He moves through the world in a way that’s entirely his own and entirely invented. While there are by necessity parts of Eliot in anything or anyone he wrote about, Prufrock is his own person.
Example #2 Mrs. Midas by Carol Ann Duffy
‘Mrs. Midas’ is in the form of a dramatic monologue, a style of writing that Duffy engages infrequently. There is a single speaker, in this case, the wife of the mythological King Midas, known for his god-given ability to turn anything he touched into gold. Duffy takes on the persona of “Mrs. Midas” in order to address her perspective on the life changes that come over her husband. This piece is one of a few included in her The World’s Wife Collection (published in 1999). It focuses, as do the others, on women unrecognized by history. Duffy creates a story for this character, refocusing the past from the female perspective. Here are a few lines from the poem:
how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,
as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,
I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.
The lines are humorous, outrageous, and entirely relatable despite the “wish” that Midas was granted. Duffy takes on Mrs. Midas’s persona and tries to relate to the reader the experiences of this much put upon woman.
Example #3 Windigo by Louise Erdrich
‘Windigo’ by Louise Erdrich is a haunting and nearly terrifying poem that describes the stalking, capture, and possible death of a young child by a dog-like monster. The main character of this short poem is a windigo. It is defined by Erdrich at the beginning of the poem as “a flesh-eating, wintry demon with a man buried deep inside of it”. Take a look at these lines that Erdrich wrote from the perspective of this particular persona:
I stole you off, a huge thing in my bristling armor.
Steam rolled from my wintry arms, each leaf shivered
from the bushes we passed
until they stood, naked, spread like the cleaned spines of fish.
These lines are clearly not spoken from the perspective of the author but from that of this wolf/dog creature that is inhabiting the body of a man. He has stalked this young child and in these lines “stole” the child off and absconded with him through the woods.