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 parts, 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.
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 the persona of another person whose life and troubles they want to explore.
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
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.
Read more T.S. Eliot 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 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.
Discover more Carol Ann Duffy 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.
Windigo by Louise Erdirch
‘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 speaking 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.
Explore more Louise Erdrich poems.
‘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.
A persona in literature is also referred to as the “speaker” or the “narrator.” They are the person who tells the story, whether they are speaking in the first, second, or third person.
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: Use the pronouns “he,” “she,” “they,” “them,” etc. The narrator does not, unlike the other third-person perspectives, have any insight into the character’s thoughts and feelings.
- Read: 10 of the Best Carol Ann Duffy Poems
- Watch: The Elements of a Poem
- Watch: The Speaker or Narrator