"What is a Persona?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is a Persona? Transcript (English subtitles available in video)

By Walter Moore

As we learned from JT Bushnell’s “What is a Narrator?” video, when we read fiction, we should not assume that the work of literature has been written in the voice of the creator of the document.  The same goes for poetry.  Consider this poem by Billy Collins called “The Revenant”:

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you--not one bit.

When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap…

You’ll notice that this poem is not written in the voice of the poet Billy Collins. Instead, Collins has chosen to write in the first-person voice of a deceased dog who has returned from the dead (as “the revenant”) to make his confessions and explanations—a final word of sorts in a voice that is not the poet.

In poetry, this literary device is what we call persona.

Persona derives from the Latin, meaning mask, or more specifically a mask in the theater or on the stage. The employ of persona has been around for centuries, but people did not use the term until the middle of the 18th Century—and they only used it then to describe characters in stage plays. In the 19th Century, the literary scope widened and the term persona was used to describe particular poems, short stories, and novels.

More recently, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, we have used the term beyond literature to describe politicians, pop stars, and other celebrities who project a public image or, in some extreme cases, an alter ego, that drastically differs from a private identity, sometimes to the point of bizarro delusion. Just think of people such as Norma Jeane Mortenson as Marilyn Monroe, Robert Zimmerman as Bob Dylan, David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Stephani Germanota as Lady Gaga, Niki Minaj as countless characters and/or identities, or just consider the persona of pretty much anyone in the United States Congress.

Famous literary examples of persona abound. We think about William Blake writing in the voice of a young chimney sweeper, or Sylvia Plath writing in the voice of Lady Lazarus, or Gwendolyn Brooks writing in the voice of teenagers who have skipped school to play pool at a bar.

As you read, ask yourself what the effect is of any given literary persona? Who is the speaker? Who is the “I” of the poem or story? Is the poet or writer being ironic? Is the persona a vehicle for parody or satire? Is the persona in the form of a monologue or soliloquy? Is it written as stream-of-consciousness? More broadly, by using a voice of a person or thing that is not themselves, what message is the poet or writer trying to convey? Why did they make this narrative choice?

In the poem “The Revenant,” Collins conveys the message that sometimes human dog owners are perhaps too self-involved to completely know what their dogs need or even want—that there is often a communicative disconnect between a dog and its owner. Collins could have written this message in the voice of a dog owner or at least in the voice of some “woke” human, but the message wouldn’t have been as convincing probably. At the very least, it wouldn’t have been as funny.

Given all of this—just think, generally, anytime a writer or an artist writes or speaks or presents themselves in the voice of someone (or even something) else, it is considered an exhibition of persona.

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms