I once met a poet who wrote only in her own persona. I was dumbstruck. Why would anyone ignore the aspect of writing that is the most fun for the writer: donning [Sheenagh Pugh] someone else’s skin? True, sagas and epics used omniscient outside narrators, and if you start a story for a young child with ‘my name is Red Riding Hood and I live near a forest’, you will get the response ‘No, you’re Mum and you live here’. About the same time they acquire the skill of telling lies, around four years old, it dawns on children that stories free you to climb inside another skin and, crucially, see through other eyes.
The earliest sustained exercise in persona in English, Anglo-Saxon riddle poems, give a voice to something that normally doesn’t have one and, by getting inside it, gain a new perspective on its nature. This is especially evident, and moving, in riddles which chronicle a change of state. The parchment ornamented with words recalls its life on a living animal’s back; the forest tree dreams of becoming the spear or drinking-cup it has the potential to be. Their culmination is the long part-persona poem The Dream of the Rood, where Christ’s cross describes how, still in its consciousness a tree, it shared the experience of crucifixion.
The Anglo-Saxons used persona to feel their way into the skins of the other life forms that shared their world, and about whose consciousness and nature they were admirably curious. But the next master in the genre, Chaucer, was in it for the freedom other people’s voices gave him. Certainly he was interested in imitating voice for its own sake, but even more in the freedom of reproducing not just how another man talks, but what he says and thinks. In the Prologue, he takes pre-emptive action against those who may object to the vocabulary of his more louche characters:
For this ye knowen al so wel as I,
Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan
Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudeliche and large,
Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe,
Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe.
No passage pinpoints so neatly the gap, and the overlap, between character and omniscient narrator. Chaucer repeats the get-out clause in the prologue to the Miller’s Tale, saying: well, what do you expect? I’ve already told you the Miller was a coundrel; he spoke as such a man would, and I can only reproduce his words. It sounds so reasonable: the chronicler, recording faithfully what he sees and hears – and there, all the time, is the puppet-master, at the back of the characters he created, making them speak as he wants them to.
Of course his characters are partly based on the people he observed. But since they were created by him, to express what he wanted said, there is a level at which the whole concept of character voice is a massive, and very useful, authorial con. It liberates a writer as nothing else can. When the genuinely pious Milton is speaking through Satan or Comus, there is a note of sardonic, delighted mischief in his voice that just isn’t heard elsewhere. It’s as if a small boy, long repressed, has suddenly been let out.
Not that Milton was Comus, though in that persona he could toy with the freedom of being others. Sometimes, persona is about creating a mask for oneself. The hero of Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, the eunuch Bagoas, is her avatar, not only expressing her fascination with fluid sexuality but enabling her to enter, through him, the classical world into which she wished she had been born and to have a relationship with her hero Alexander. This is the opposite of how the Anglo-Saxons used persona, since it involves oneself. It asks ‘what sort of life would I have had as a Persian eunuch’, not ‘what sort of life does a tree, or an iceberg, or a spear have in its own right’. It is very hard for a writer to get far enough into a really unfamiliar skin to convince. To be a fox, you must see from a different angle; the world will have a lot of feet and legs in it. The sound spectrum will be different; the tapestry of smell infinitely wider. Your own sense of selfhood and of the wider world will change; otherwise you’re just a writer in a red furry suit.
Yet there’s nothing more exhilarating, when it works. In Les Murray’s ‘The Cows on Killing Day’, from Subhuman Redneck Poems the syntax alters with the world-view:
All me are standing on feed. The sky is empty.
All me have just been milked.
The cow uses ‘me’ for all creatures she recognises as her own kind. It is collective: to this herd creature, what happens to her kind happens to her:
Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me,
coming out behind an ear.
Me, that other me, down and
dreaming in the bare yard.
All me come running.
This is a consciousness that humans, being determinedly individual, will never know; it feels like a sudden insight into a foreign language or the world-view of an alien. Yet we can’t help also seeing references to ourselves; ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’. And suddenly the alien becomes achingly familiar.
It’s this rapprochement with different cultures, even species, that has always meant most to me about poetry. ‘You are not like Cerberus, three gentlemen at once, are you?’ asked Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop From a writer, the answer would be ‘I hope so’, or perhaps‘only three?’