Classic poems about selfhood and identity selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Poetry and self-expression go hand in hand: we often treat them as synonymous. Of course, this is a relatively modern notion, largely the legacy of the Romantics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – and poets in the twentieth century in particular have sought to move away from this idea of poetry as a record of the poet’s own self. (See T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ for one prominent example.) Nonetheless, many poets have written about the self, and their individual identity, as the following classic poems about selfhood demonstrate.
William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’.
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye!
This is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems and one of the best-loved of the English Romantic movement. In this blank-verse meditation prompted by the ruins of the medieval Welsh abbey that gives the poem its title (although the full title is considerably longer), Wordsworth muses upon the ‘true self’ which creativity allows the poet to recover. The poem’s full title is ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour’.
John Clare, ‘I Am’.
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live …
Clare’s later years were plagued by mental illness, delusion, and insanity, and ‘I Am’ was written in the 1840s when Clare was in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, isolated from his friends and family. The poem reflects this troubled period in Clare’s life. two-word title unfolds and subtly alters its meaning across the course of the poem. ‘I am’, opens the poem, only to be immediately followed by a dash, marking it as a self-sufficient statement about the self. Not ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’: simply ‘I am’. But then, once we reach the third line, ‘I am’ is being pressed into its more usual service: ‘I am the self-consumer of my woes’. Click on the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass …
So begins this gloriously expansive nineteenth-century poem. When Whitman’s 1855 volume Leaves of Grass was published at Whitman’s own expense – the first edition containing just a dozen untitled poems – ‘Song of Myself’ headed the collection. This statement of selfhood contains the famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’. The link above takes you to several choice excerpts from the longer poem.
Emily Dickinson, ‘On a Columnar Self’. A typically unusual take on the concept of the self here, from one of American poetry’s most distinctive voices. Dickinson likens the self to a granite column – hard, sturdy, dependable, full of conviction – which, even if it finds itself unsupported by anyone else, will stand fast because it has ‘Rectitude’ on its side, and through such righteousness it will find itself closer to God.
Thomas Hardy, ‘The Self-Unseeing’. This short poem sees Hardy returning to his childhood home, and remembering how it used to be when he was there with other people, whose ‘feet’ once ‘walked in’. ‘The Self-Unseeing’ is about taking things for granted, about failing to appreciate what you have, especially your family, when you’re a child. The poem’s title deftly combines two of Thomas Hardy’s trademark linguistic devices: the compound hyphenation and the use of the ‘un’-prefix. This creates further questions. ‘The Self-Unseeing’: how should we read this? As the self failing to see what’s around? Or as our inability to see ourselves?
W. E. Henley, ‘Invictus’.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed …
Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa is named Invictus after this poem, and for good reason: Nelson Mandela recited the poem to his fellow prisoners while he was incarcerated on Robben Island. ‘Invictus’ was partly inspired by Henley’s own struggles as an invalid (he lost a leg when young) and his determination to remain ‘bloody but unbowed’. The poem introduced a couple of famous phrases into the language: ‘bloody, but unbowed’, and the final two lines: ‘I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘My Own Heart Let Me More Have Pity On’. ‘My own heart let me more have pity on; let / Me live to my sad self hereafter kind, / Charitable’: so begins this sonnet by one of the Victorian era’s greatest poets. Written in the mid-1880s in Ireland, when Hopkins was suffering from depression, this is one of his ‘Terrible Sonnets’, so named because of the dark moods of comfortlessness they record. In this sonnet, Hopkins begins by begging his own self to have pity on … his own heart.
D. H. Lawrence, ‘Self-Pity’. A very short poem, this: in just four lines, Lawrence underscores how self-pity is a uniquely human flaw, not observable elsewhere in the natural world.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Ariel’. This enigmatic poem uses the metaphor of an early morning horse-ride to explore numerous shifting notions of identity. The poem is often viewed as a reflection of Plath’s early morning poetry-writing ritual in the months leading up to her death: she would wake, write poetry, and then spend the rest of the day employed in household chores. Read in this way, ‘Ariel’ can be understood as a powerful, if ambiguous, declaration of self-expression and freedom, albeit freedom desired rather than fully possessed.
Maya Angelou, ‘Still I Rise’. This wonderfully self-assertive poem about picking yourself up and striving to achieve, even in the face of adversity, was used for an advertising campaign by the United Negro College Fund in the US, but its message of selfhood and determination is one that should be heard by all.
Discover more classic poetry with these short poems about death, these poems of seduction, and these classic and very short love poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.