The voice of a literary text is linked with the persona and the tone created by the author.  Persona is defined as the first-person narrator, whether fictional or autobiographical; the tone is the same as tone of voice used in everyday speech.  Abrams describes tone as revealing

by subtle clues, our conception of, and attitude to, the things
we are talking about, our personal relation to our auditor, as
well as our assumptions about the[ir] social level,intelligence
and sensitivity …. [It] can be … critical or approving, formal or
intimate, outspoken or reticent, solemn or playful, arrogant or prayerful, angry or loving, serious or ironic,condescending
obsequious …. (Abrams, 1993, p. 156)

As tone of voice implies this is an integral part of voice, both in literature and speech.  The voice of a text gives the sense of the author behind it, the narrator within it, a sense of persona pervading the text.  There may be several voices within the same work – that of the protagonist, that of the narrator, and that of the author, layered or interwoven within the text.

In his book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), “Wayne C Booth’s project was to examine ‘the art of communicating with readers – the rhetorical resources available to … writer[s]”. (Selden, 1993, p. 20)  Booth established that the implied author was invented by the reader “by deduction from the attitudes articulated …. [in the text producing a] distinction between author the ‘authorial voice’”(ibid, p. 20)  But

his separating out of ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’ narrators
[voices] – the former, usually in the third person, coming
close to the values of the ‘implied author’; the latter, often
a character …, a deviant from them …. [thus] paradoxically
… promot[ing] the belief that authors do mean to ‘impose’
their values on the reader and that ‘reliability’ is a therefore
good thing (ibid, p. 20)

were to be Booth’s main legacy regarding rhetoric, that is the use of voice.  Referring to Booth’s use of the term implied author, Abrams writes that “the implied author, although related to the actual author, is nonetheless part of the total fiction … important [to] … the total effect of a work on the reader.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 157)  The critic, Walter J Ong saw this implied author as a false voice – the true voice being an “[e]xpression of the author’s genuine self or identity.” (ibid, p. 157)

Thus voice is that nuance of personal views and beliefs, moral, spiritual, political, and social, that permeate a text, whether poetry or prose, narrative or meditative, classical or exploratory.

There is another form of voice that should be considered, and has been by Dylan Thomas – that of the reader’s or performer’s actual voice.  Depending upon their point of view, they can project into a performance piece/ poem their own attitudes and feelings.  They may be passionate about the piece in question, or skeptical of its message, or enthusiastic about its author despite not quite understanding the meaning of the language used.  This overlays the voice of the author, and/or the narrator of the text.

In his radio talk/script ‘The English Festival of Spoken Poetry’, Dylan Thomas describes people who “cannot keep their liking [of poems] to themselves” (Thomas, 1983, p. 126) but feel compelled to share it with others – to “reel the lovely stuff off aloud.” (ibid, p. 126) Having described the various styles in which they then read the poems, he continues:

Known words grow wings; print sprints and shoots; the
voice discovers the poet’s ear; it’s found a poem on a
page is only half a poem…. they find that good poets are
better than they (the readers) thought they were…
(ibid, p. 26)

He admitted that there were obvious flaws encountered by listeners – those of sibilance, melodrama, over-inflection that “strangles rhythm and truncheons meaning[,] …. the ‘dead voice’ … of flat understatement” (ibid, p. 129), and multiple illustrative actions.

In ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning (Norton, 1983, p. 717), the Duke who describes his former wife to an emissary from the Count, whose daughter he wants to wed, is a fictional persona.  As the narrator he is totally separate from the author, who writes in the Duke’s voice, not his own.  And the character of the Duke, arrogant, assured of his right “[n]ever to stoop” (ibid, p. 718, line 43) to admonish his wife of her apparent lack of respect due his position, his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (ibid, p. 718, line 33), builds line by line through the condescending tone of his created voice.  But the voice does much more than that.  It manipulates the reader to share the reactions of the position of listener.  The reader is not just overhearing the conversation, the warning of the fate that awaits his new bride should she be unfaithful, but is a part-actor aligned with the emissary and his reactions.

In ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’ by Walt Whitman (ibid, p. 764) the distinct voice of the author can be heard.  There is no suggestion of a separate character, but a persona is created – that of someone tired of Science and its discoveries, its revelations of “proofs” and “figures”, “charts and diagrams” (ibid, p. 764, lines 2 & 3) that attempt to explain the universe in which the author lives.  The reader overhears and shares with the author the knowledge of man’s insignificance that is encapsulated in the lines:

           In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
          Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(ibid, p. 764, lines 7 & 8)

In ‘This Is Just to Say’  by William Carlos Williams (ibid, p. 945) the author’s speaking voice is loud and clear.  Of course it could be the voice of the implied author, related to the actual author, part of the total fiction … important [to] … the total effect of the work on the reader.(Abrams, 1983, p. 157)  Overheard by the reader, the poem is a simple, personal message from one partner to the other, laid out in three four-line stanzas with an unexpected break in rhythm in lines 6 & 7.  The language of the third stanza is particularly evocative reinforcing the fact that the plums “were in / the icebox”. (ibid, p. 945, lines 3 & 4)

          Similarly, the poems ‘Unfortunate Coincidence’ and ‘Resume’ by Dorothy Parker (ibid, p. 1038) both bear direct messages from the author.  Whether this is the author’s false voice or true voice, the persona is clearly defined by the cynical tone.  In ‘Unfortunate Coincidence’, at first there is some doubt who the author is addressing – who is the ‘you’ of the poem, the reader?  When it is revealed that the “Lady” is being addressed, it is clear that she has romantic tendencies “shivering and sighing” (ibid, p. 1038, line 2), while her lover is passionate with “infinite, undying” (ibid, p.1038, line 4) emotions.  With their personalities revealed, it is apparent that there are three personae within the poem – the “Lady”, her lover, and the author.  The amusement at the expense of the protagonists is obvious in the tone of the author’s voice.

In ‘Resume’ the irony is heavy, the message one of the futility of attempting suicide and the necessity to accept the alternative – “[y]ou might as well live.” (ibid, p. 1038, line 8)  The poem’s matter-of-fact set of opinions highlight the persona of the author, implied or genuine – a no-nonsense realist.  Rather than the readers overhearing the opinions, the author’s use of the second person directly involves them, making them active recipients.  The poem’s voice manipulates the readers to participate with its content.  Considering that the poem was written in 1926, the voice is a surprisingly modern one, its message relevant in today’s world.

‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’  by Dylan Thomas (ibid, p. 1181) was written by Thomas during the final illness of his father.  A plea to his father to resist death, the poem is deeply personal, baring the emotions of the author – the tone of voice one of anguish.  Yet the author attempts to reason with the recipient, his father, to give examples of how other men, wise, good, wild and grave, refuse to yield to death without a fight.  The sadness of death is evoked with the lines:

            And you, my father, there on the sad height,
          Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
          Do not go gentle into that good night.
          Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
          (ibid, p. 1182, lines 16-19)

The creation of a very private moment between father and son by the tone of voice leaves the reader in the position of eavesdropper.

‘Playboy’  by Richard Wilbur (ibid, p. 1225) contains three personae – the narrator, the subject/stock-boy, and the object/Playboy-girl.  Though narrated in third person omniscient, the characters are each given a persona – he that of a gawky pubescent male so engrossed by the Playboy girl that:

Sometimes, without a glance, he feeds himself.
The left hand, like a mother-bird in flight,
Brings him a sandwich for a sidelong bite,
And then returns it to a dusty shelf.
(ibid, p. 1225, lines 5-8)

She, the Playboy girl, is frozen in time in the photograph at the moment when she submits to the gaze of the onlooker, and “beyond control, / Consents to his inexorable will.” (ibid, p. 1226, lines 27-8) Throughout the poem runs the amused, knowing attitude of the narrator/author to his subject, given away by his choice of metaphors and similes.  Educated, observant, wry, he makes his descriptive language create the atmosphere of the stock-room, and of the photographic “pink-papered alcove” (ibid, p. 1225, line 10) with its “tasseled and vermilion cloth”. (ibid, p. 1226, line 18)  With his question: “What so engrosses him? (ibid, p. 1225, line 9) the author invites the reader to share the role of on-looker, and to share in the amusement caused by this act of voyeurism.

The poem, ‘To Aunt Rose’ by Allen Ginsberg (ibid, p. 1279) is a first person narration of the second person subject, his Aunt Rose.  The voice is that of an implied author who could be fictional having a part to play in the poem, or could be that of Ginsberg.  Either way he contributes by presenting his view of his aunt, and his understanding of what he knew of her:

– your long sad face
          your tears of sexual frustration
(ibid, p. 1279, lines 18-19)

representing his conjecture concerning her tears.  The persona of the author and that of his aunt are intertwined, though the voice is always that of the author/narrator, ambiguous as that sometimes is, with, for example, reference to his homosexuality: “knowing me a man already – / and I an ignorant girl of family silence …” (ibid, p. 1280, lines 27-28).  The tone is nostalgic, expressing views on the waste and value of life, and on intimacies between family members to be remembered retrospectively.  Various characters are evoked in a few words: “a stranger with a cloth arm / in his pocket / and a huge young bald head” (ibid, p. 1279, lines 14-16) and “my father, the Poet, on his visit to Newark … [whose] book / had been accepted by Liveright”. (ibid, p. 1280, lines 38 & 41-2)  The voice positions the readers outside the poem, as onlookers overhearing personal reminiscence.

‘Hanging Fire’ by Audre Lorde (ibid, p. 1364) is another first person narration of either an implied author or the real author when younger.  The voice is anxious, insecure, complaining, and jealous –

and momma’s in the bedroom
with the door closed
(ibid, p. 1364, lines 10-11, 22-23, 34-35)

– that of a teenage boy with his hormone-induced traumas.  There is no confusion as to the origin of the voice, or the topic of the poem.  There is only one voice – the views and attitudes are those of the adolescent complaining and questioning the ether, or anyone who will listen – in this case the reader.

T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ (ibid, p. 1000) is the ultimate in voice poems.  Because of its multiple voices it readily transformed into a radio play, and takes on life when read aloud.  The first person narrator is ambiguous throughout – is it the voice of the author or of an implied author, an invention within the fictions set out?  And the second person addressee – is it the reader or one of the characters?  Each voice gives a cameo of each persona, all intermingling, overlapping like a collage to create a complete work that carries multiple layers of meaning.

Alluding to various works mythical, classical and modern, Eliot provides his characters with inter-textual depth, juxtaposing them with superficial personal moments.  An example of this borrowing is his allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the lines: “I remember / Those are pearls that were his eyes” (ibid, p. 1004, lines 124-5), referred to as “that Shakespeherian Rag -“ (ibid, p. 1004, line 128), placed beside a reference to “a game of chess” (ibid, p. 1004, line 137) from Middleton’s Women Beware Women, then followed by a contemporary dialogue between the implied author and Lil about the latter’s husband Albert’s de-mobbing.

Mostly the voices place the reader in the listening position, as an observer of the lives of the participants.  But in places the reader is involved, asked to become part of the “we [who] should stop and drink” (ibid, p. 1009, line 335) and accompanied by an unknown “third who walks always beside you” (ibid, p. 1010, line 360).  The tone is also diverse – sometimes serious, sometimes frivolous, often enigmatic and baffling – as it accompanies content varying from natural descriptions to social situations to philosophical meditations.

These poems all illustrate how the voice of a literary text is vital to the total effect of a work on the reader (Abrams, 1993, p.157), and how it is generated by the use of first person narrator, and/or of tone of voice, to create the sense of a presence, a persona, either authorial, fictional or implied within the work.

(C) Jud House 20/11/1998

NB:  I was going to put links to all the poems used in this essay, but was unable to locate them individually.  When collections were found they were invariable for the purchase of the volumes.  No doubt I was looking in the wrong place.  However, the Norton Anthology Third Edition referred to, and displayed at the beginning, is readily available in Libraries and online.  There are of course later editions, but I do not know whether all the works mentioned will be in them.

Jud House  17/10/2012


Abrams, M H (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983)  The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition.  New York:  W W Norton & Company. (Referred to as NORTON)

Saunders, I (1993)  Open Texts, Partial Maps – A Literary Theory Handbook  Nedlands:  The University of Western Australia.

Selden, R & Widdowson, P (1993) A Reader’s guide toContemporary Literary Theory Third Edition  Hertfordshire:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.  (Referred to as SELDEN)

Thomas, D (1983)  Quite Early One Morning – Poems, Stories, Essays.  London:  J M Dent & Sons Ltd.

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