Here is an example illustration for this week’s focus on persona: a poem by H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) called “Oread.”
I’ll return to this poem in a few weeks when we talk about the literary-historical school of “imagism,” but for now I want to pose this as a problem text that can really only be read if you are willing to divorce the voice of the poem from that of the author. At least as a thought experiment, we’ve got to allow for the possibility that the speaker is not Hilda Doolittle the poet, but an oread.
If this is allowed, then we have a problem beyond the normal task of distinguishing between a poem’s persona, what somebody might feel strongly in the moment but not necessarily all the time (a passing emotion rather than some fundamental identity, the sort of thing lyrics convey quite well), and their day to day reality, which would be better expressed, perhaps, as a summation of moments. For this poem at least the speaker is not only an extreme version of a momentary human perspective, she’s not even human. She’s an immortal mountain nymph from ancient Greek myth, an etiological attempt to make the rocky landscape more comprehensible by personifying it. In some versions of the myth, the oread lurks in rocky dells and cliffs when she’s not out hunting with Artemis, but pretty much looks like other nymphs:
But on the other hand, those mythological stories often ended with sympathetic Greek hunters being overcome with desire for the sexually desirable but unattainable nymphs and ending tragically (for the men). I don’t see any of that in this poem, so I think this oversexualized picture is a bit off for our purposes here. However, I do see evidence that the oread has a mountainous perspective, and as I note in the caption above even in the picture above her head is made of mountain. As a personification of a frightening and inhuman landscape, it might make more sense to think of her like this:
What do I know about this speaker? I know she’s pretty confident: all of the sentences of the poem are commands in the imperative mood. She also seems to have a desire for the sea, one that doesn’t seem to be achievable; I assume this must be because she’s bound to her mountain (in the same way that a dryad is bound to a tree or a naiad to a particular pool or spring) and can’t leave to take a dip. Gazing out at the sea, she orders it to leap onto the mountains so she can feel what it’s like to be somebody else — a sympathetic goal, and one that a reader of this poem is already experiencing by reading about somebody with a totally alien perspective.
I also know that the speaker mostly knows about mountains, and might therefore have some trouble describing things that are outside of her experience. So for someone who knows much more about rocks and the sorts of trees that grow on mountains, gazing out at the sea during a storm, which might actually look like this:
But it might appear like this to her:
Perhaps the weirdness of her command to the sea to “cover us with your pools of fir” is due, in other words, to her not having language for waves except in terms of trees. But here is another way of thinking about it: for somebody with an immortal perspective, normal time might seem to move more slowly than our perspective of the passing of time, considering we only have a few measly decades before we depart the Aegean shoreline forever. But this speaker has all the time in the world. It’s also possible that the sea’s green becomes the fir forest in her eyes, but the command wasn’t made with the alacrity we usually associate with commands: in 80 years or so, cover us with your pools of fir. Then the “pools of fir” could refer to a forest encroaching upon the slopes of her mountain, which she welcomes.