Is the speaker in a poem one and the same as the writer? Stop and consider this for a few moments. Can you think of any poems you have read where a writer has created a character, or persona, whose voice we hear when we read?
Wordsworth's The Prelude was written as an autobiographical poem, but there are many instances where it is obvious that poet and persona are different. Charlotte Mew's poem, ‘The Farmer's Bride’ (1916) begins like this:
Three summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe – but more's to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Mew invents a male character here, and clearly separates herself as a writer from the voice in her poem. Some of the most well-known created characters – or personae – in poetry are Browning's dramatic monologues.
Consider the opening lines from three Robert Browning poems attached below (click ‘View document’). Who do you think is speaking?
Well, the first speaker isn't named, but we can infer that, like Brother Lawrence whom he hates, he's a monk. The second must be a Duke since he refers to his ‘last Duchess’ and, if we read to the end of the third poem, we discover that the speaker is a man consumed with such jealousy that he strangles his beloved Porphyria with her own hair. Each of the poems is written in the first person (‘my heart's abhorrence’; ‘That's my last Duchess’; I listened with heart fit to break’). None of the characters Browning created in these poems bears any resemblance to him: the whole point of a dramatic monologue is the creation of a character who is most definitely not the poet. Charlotte Mew's poem can be described in the same way.
Click on ‘View document’ below to read the extracts attached below from Anne Brontë's ‘Home’ and Grace Nichols's ‘Wherever I Hang’.
(a) What do you make of the speaking voices in these stanzas?
(b) Are these poems personal private statements, or have the writers adopted personae, as Browning did in the examples above?
(a) Both poems are about exile, or quite simply, homesickness. They were written nearly 150 years apart, and that is reflected in the tone of speaking voice in each poem, in the diction, and in the choice of different verse forms. But what do you know about Anne Brontë, or Grace Nichols?
(b) Well, as far as their lives are concerned, we have this information. Anne Bronte was born in 1820. She went away to school and worked as a governess, but returned to her home between appointments, and died there in 1849. Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950 and emigrated to Britain when she was 27. While they may have drawn on their experiences, there is no evidence to suggest that these are autobiographical poems. Both may well have felt homesickness, but it would be rash to make the assumption that either writes in her own voice in these poems. When scholars examined manuscripts of Emily and Anne Brontë's poems, they discovered that many that had always been considered autobiographical had in fact been part of an epic story that the sisters wrote – their ‘Gondal Saga’ – and were spoken by characters in the story. When they published their poems, they simply removed references to the saga. This should be a salutary warning against assuming too quickly that the speaker of a poem is to be identified with the author.
What of Grace Nichols and ‘Wherever I Hang’? Read the poem again carefully (open by clicking ‘View document’ below), paying attention to word choice and use of grammar, then ask what kind of character has been created.
The speaker is cheerful, adaptable, and not without a sense of humour. She's ‘not too sure’ why she left ‘me people, me land, me home’ which she remembers for its ‘humming-bird splendour’ but also for the less pleasant ‘big rats in de floorboard’. There's a sense of amazement at ‘de people pouring from de underground system’, but the comment ‘Like beans’, given the emphasis of a line to itself, suggests that this is something that won't faze her. She continues to take things in her stride, changing her ‘calypso ways’ to learn English customs, such as not visiting ‘Before giving them clear warning’ and waiting ‘me turn in queue’. There's a wry tone to ‘clear warning’ – a humorous suggestion that a visit might be a threat rather than a pleasure. Try reading both those lines with a standard English accent. It works well for the first line because of the use of grammar; but the Creole idiom of the next makes an English accent ridiculous. Instead of being preceded by ‘the’ (or ‘de’), ‘queue’ appears without a definite article, making it sound slightly pompous and hinting at the speaker's amused contempt, even while she's prepared to conform to this English national characteristic.
Use of standard and Creole English dramatises the poem's tensions. The speaker says she doesn't really know ‘where I belaang’ – ‘belaang’ here deliberately asserting her difference. In the last line, ‘me knickers’ instead of 'my knickers’ takes us back to ‘me people, me land, me home’ of the first line. But the very last phrase ‘ – that's my home’ – comes down firmly in favour of standard English and the adopted country. She hangs her knickers up (on a washing line?) in England, so that is where she belongs.
Is the speaker one and the same as Grace Nichols? It would be a very rash assumption to make. The speaker of ‘Wherever I Hang’ has a flexible approach to difficulties as well as a sense of humour, qualities she may well share with the poet, but the speaker is very much an individual. One aspect of the poem that you might also like to consider is the reference in the title and the last line to the song ‘Wherever I Hang My Hat’, recorded by a number of male vocalists, Paul Young among others. ‘Wherever I Hang’ was first published in a volume called Lazy Thought of a Lazy Woman and Other Poems (1989); Nichols also wrote The Fat Black Women poems (1984). She herself may be black, but these are not self-portraits. Get into the habit of thinking of speakers as carefully created characters.
Imagine that you do not know the gender of the writer and then ask if the speaker of a poem is male or female. Can you find evidence within the poem itself? Nichols's speaker refers to her underwear as knickers, so it seems to me safe to assume a female voice. But you may have automatically assumed that Anne Brontë's speaker was female simply because you know the poet is. Look back at ‘Home’ and see if you can find definitive evidence either way, remembering that this was a poem written for a character in the (no longer extant) ‘Gondal Saga’. Could the speaker have been a man?
Poems written in the first person are just as likely to be fiction as poems written in the third person. It is important never to assume that the ‘I’ of any poem is the direct voice of the poet.