Persona and the Lyric Poem

This post comes early because I’m off to Vermont bright and early tomorrow morning to teach for a week at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. If you can tolerate it, I’d like to say one word more about persona, this time in connection with poetry.

I’ve chosen this old lyric poem by William Allingham:

Four Ducks on a Pond

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring.
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years—
To remember with tears.


I chose this poem as a way of looking at how persona works in a poem that isn’t narrative and has no clearly-identified speaker—no “I.” I wanted to see whether, as in last week’s example from fiction, a poet can use a shift in persona to good effect, particularly at the end—or the turn, if you will—of a lyric poem.

Think about the persona that the first four lines seem to come from—a placid and pleasant observer, enjoying the springtime. Now notice what happens after the stop of the semi-colon at the end of that fourth line. “What a little thing.” There’s a different sound in those five syllables: “TA ta TA ta TA.” That’s the way I hear it, with the stresses falling on the first, third, and fifth syllables. I’m way out of my league here when I try to make this analogy to musical composition, but please let me try. It seems to me that there’s something similar to a minor chord in the sound of that line, “What a little thing.” A minor chord, as we know, sounds darker than a major chord. From what I understand, a minor chord has a root, a minor third, and a perfect fifth. I’ll admit to having no damn idea what any of those are, but please indulge my ignorance because what I see is that a minor chord is composed of three notes just as this line of poetry sounds three stresses. I’ll let the musicians sort this all out, but for that reason alone I hear this line the way one would hear a minor chord sounding the darkness. Already the turn is starting to appear, and it comes fully to the surface with the sad last line of the poem, “To remember with tears.”

Much the way a piece of third-person fiction has an effaced narrator, this poem has a disembodied voice, and that voice is composed of contradictory personas. The sadder, darker one is present from the beginning but it’s submerged beneath the more hopeful, lighter one when the poem starts. The poem gains its effect by covertly uncovering the darker persona at the very end of the poem. That sound, because it’s been hidden, resonates when it finally arrives.




  1. Suzanne Goldsmith on August 11, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Thank you for opening up that poem so concisely! I think I see the parallel to music, but I find it in the ambiguity of that “What a little thing.” It is like the ambiguity of a minor chord, which, unlike a decisive major, contains (to me) the possibility of both happiness and sadness. That line is the first in the poem to suggest commentary, but until the last line I’m unsure what direction the author will take. Great example to contemplate.

  2. Lee on August 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Oh, thank goodness! Someone who actually does know something about music. Suzanne, I love what you say about ambiguity. That line contains both light and dark. It’s the possibility of either that gives the final, resolving line it’s power. Thanks!

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