Poems about identity



“Identity – who we are, where we come from, how we perceive ourselves and how others see us – has long been a theme of poetry. “I am! yet what I am none cares or knows,” wrote the poet John Clare during his 22-year incarceration in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum – the first line of one of the most powerful meditations on identity in the language. To celebrate National Poetry Day, schools, libraries, universities and literary societies around the country are asking people to suggest and discuss the poems they love that engage with issues of selfhood, so not to be left out, I say let’s join in and do the same on Culture Vulture.

For my money, the best poem on the subject is WH Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, which unites issues of personal and literary identity, and explores the question of the extent to which authors can identify themselves with their work.


“For him it was his last afternoon as himself,” says Auden of Yeats’ dying day,

An afternoon of nurses and rumours; The provinces of his body revolted, The squares of his mind were empty, Silence invaded the suburbs, The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections, To find his happiness in another kind of wood And be punished under a foreign code of conscience. The words of a dead man Are modified in the guts of the living.

The brilliance of Auden’s poem, for me, is that not only does he raise these fundamental questions in some of the most fervent, lyrical lines I’ve come across in poetry, he also uses his poem to enact the point he is making. The poem is divided into three sections, and in the third, Auden pays ringing tribute to Yeats in lines that have an unmistakably Yeatsian flavour. The two poets merge for a moment on the page, identity becomes fluid, and Yeats comes alive again through Auden’s lines. It’s a heartstopping poem: I highly recommend you give yourselves a Poetry Day treat and read it.

6 thoughts on “Poems about identity

  1. In examining others’ lives, we get closer to understanding our own. Auden was such a deep thinker, as so few manage today. What a wonderful poem. Reading about Yeats has made my inner self rise up and speak. Auden says

    “With the farming of a verse
    Make a vineyard of the curse,
    Sing of human unsuccess
    In a rapture of distress.”

    I would say it: poetry makes wine of sour grapes, makes golden jewels of flaws and connects us outside our lifetimes to those gone and unborn. What could be more magical than that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a wonderful comment,Brenda.Thank you so much.I did that poem at O level and Auden was a great influence on me.I like Wordsworth and Coleridge but Auden made it seem possible to write although I didn’t for many years.Similarly it was Monet who made me interested in Art.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My first introduction to Auden was in 4 Weddings & A Funeral, and his recited poem made me weep. It’s our flaws that make anything seem possible. Our pain unites us. Evidence of struggles connect us. It’s lovely to think deeply instead of doing the tedious tasks that make up most of life. Thanks for that moment.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well,I am so happy that I chose that one.Isn’t it amazing we can share with people like this? I just love reading and writing poetry because of the musicality and the distilled essence of feeling

        Liked by 1 person

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