The Power of a Persona (True or Not)

In the process of dismantling the idea that Robert Frost was a kindly farmer-poet (Atlantic $), James Dickey in 1966 made a good point about the power of a personal persona:

The persona of the Frost Story was made year by year, poem by poem, of elements of the actual life Frost lived, reinterpreted by the exigencies of the persona. He had, for example, some knowledge of farming, though he was never a farmer by anything but default. Physically he was a lazy man, which is perhaps why images of work figure so strongly in his poems. Through these figures in his most famous pieces, probably his best poems—haying, apple-picking, mowing, cleaning springs, and mending walls—he indulged in what with him was the only effective mode of self-defense he had been able to devise: the capacity to claim competence at the menial tasks he habitually shirked, and to assert, from that claim, authority, “earned truth,” and a wisdom elusive, personal, and yet final …

What he accomplished, in the end, was what he became. Not what he became as a public figure, forgotten as quickly as other public figures are, but what he became as a poet …

His poems were a tremendous physical feat, a lifelong muscular striving after survival. Though [he was] tragically hard on the people who loved him, put up with him, and suffered because of him, Frost’s courage and stubbornness are plain, and they are impressive. But no one who reads this book [Frost’s biography] will ever again believe in the Frost Story, the Frost myth, which includes the premises that Frost the man was kindly, forbearing, energetic, hardworking, good-neighborly, or anything but the small-minded, vindictive, ill-tempered, egotistic, cruel, and unforgiving man he was until the world deigned to accept at face value his estimate of himself.

For us living souls, it doesn’t matter who the real Robert Frost was. The point is that during his lifetime he racked four Pulitzer Prizes and achieved the status as one of the great American poets.

Again and again we are reminded of the power of a persona. Insofar as it captures the imagination, it needn’t have any bearing on reality.

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