Hope & Healing Through Photography and Poetic Expression

Analysis of “Self-Portrait”

by Aimee Larsen Stoddard –July 27, 2010
Casting aside unanswerable religious questions in his poem “Self-Portrait,” poet David Whyte exposes the grand mystery inherent in the human condition.

“Self-Portrait,” a poem by contemporary poet David Whyte, begins with these forceful lines: “It doesn’t interest me if there is one God / or many gods.”

From the beginning of his poem, Whyte declares that religious answers are unimportant and implies that the questions they address are not even worth asking.

By the end of the poem, however, Whyte transforms the questions he cast aside at the beginning to reveal the mystery that religious responses frequently obscure.

Central Premise of Whyte’s “Self-Portrait” Poem

“Self-Portrait” is a poem in which one person is speaking to another, the “you” in the poem. The title of the poem, however, suggests the speaker and the “you” are the same person. In any case, the speaker is insistent that it is time for “you” to remove the social mask – the cultural and societal constraints – that make a person inauthentic.

Analyzing the first two lines of David Whyte’s poem, Roger Housden observes, “Religious or philosophical opinions are irrelevant when we gaze at the truth of our life.” This is the central idea of Whyte’s poem, which the poet lays bare in the opening lines. It’s suggested that religious debates over the truth of one religion over another, of the veracity of monotheism or polytheism, of Eastern truth versus Western truth do not matter.

Questions Worth Asking Explore Human Condition

In the subsequent lines of Whyte’s poem, the speaker defines what questions are worth asking and answering. The important questions in life have to do with universal questions about the human condition – the experiences all people share and must wrestle with. One of the most profound of these is struggling to come to peace with trying to live up to the world’s expectations while also trying to live authentically, which frequently seems like an either-or proposition.

The questions the speaker has asked in the poem up to this point are summed up as the questioner insists, “I want to know / if you know / how to melt into that fierce heat of living / falling toward / the center of your longing.”

The questioner is asking for complete honesty about the yearning that is deep inside the human soul. This longing is for the transcendence that transforms the human condition, a glimpse of which is what inspires religions as they seek to hold onto and then encapsulate the indefinable.

Transformation of Religious Answers into Spiritual Questions

The climax of the “Self-Portrait” poem and the last question the inquirer asks is about love, which is central to and which many religions define as the highest goal of being human: “I want to know / if you are willing / to live, day by day, with the consequence of love / and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.”

The consequence of love is bitterness and defeat, the speaker bluntly divulges. All love ends in deep pain – splitting or distancing of two people due to a multitude of factors or ultimate finality of the relationship due to the death of one or the other person. This loss is the deepest hurt of being human and so elicits the biggest and most profound questions about the human condition.

Grappling with and after Transcendence

Having reached the climax of the questions, the speaker turns back to the question of God that was cast aside at the beginning of the poem: “I have heard in that fierce embrace even / the gods speak of God.”

At first, these last lines seem to be a clever contradiction and play on the speaker’s disinterest in God expressed in the first lines of the poem. However, on closer inspection, the lines reveal the mystery inherent in the God question when examined from a new and soulful perspective. Examined from this vantage point, the concept of God expands to fill and validate the questions sincerely asked by the human heart.

The last lines of “Self-Portrait” suggest that pain and suffering force one to move beyond limiting ideas of God to seek an acceptance and peace with the unknown, with the mystery of existence, with the intense revelations it inspires that come at a great and ultimate price – and perhaps then find comfort in the engulfing and fierce transcendence that is its essence.


Housden, Roger. (2003). Ten Poems to Set You Free. NY, NY: Harmony Books.

Selection of Poems by David Whyte, DavidWhyte.com. Retrieved July 27, 2010.

Whyte, David. (2002). Fire in the Earth. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press.

Please click here to return to feature photo and post: I Want To Know « THROUGH THE HEALING LENS

12 responses

  1. yazrooney

    I went and read the poem…it was stunning, to say the least. And it goes right to the heart of human living. It touched my own fear of loss; I have ‘suffered’ from it all my life, and then my fears were realized when I lost my son at age 21. And it’s true, only when this level of pain arrives do you begin to ask the right questions. Thank you for this.

    June 28, 2012 at 3:47 AM

    • Hi again yazrooney… Yes!! that poem — just blew me away. Challenges the psyche in such a profound way. My heart just breaks to hear of your loss…your young son. I have a daughter of 22 … just makes me panic to think of what you have experienced. It does seem as though you have found grace and peace in your quest …. I admire you so ~ thank you for sharing you heart here. Much Love ~RL

      June 28, 2012 at 9:46 PM

    • By the way Yaz — as it turns out, the poem “The Invitation” was inspired by this one by David Whyte! I did some research, and Oriah worked with David on the format — so you may have noticed how it flows in a similar way – though I think Oriah’s speaks more of day to day living and embracing what is. Sending Love ~R

      October 2, 2012 at 12:48 PM

      • Yaz

        I just went back now, Robyn. I didn’t make the connection, but you’re right, the same haunting questions are asked based on the sorrows that come of meeting with one’s deepest issues. Now that I’ve been through the fire, I’m not so keen on life, but I’m not sure that I have a choice whether to go or stay. I’m still contemplating that question. Both David and Oriah have clearly been to the place where religious issues disappear and the question of who we really are rises up to be answered in our own way. Thanks for this Robyn.

        I hope you’re feeling okay at the moment. I know you’re in a place where the demons haunt you. Keep asking the question of whether you’re ready to accept a life of balance when it comes to receiving love as well as giving it. It’s one thing to accept a husband’s love and your children’s love. these are people you hold close to your heart and that you trust. What about the other interactions? Why would you feel safe giving rather than receiving? Why are you forced into a situation where you must now receive love and attention from others without the ability to give back? dig deep. Sometimes we can’t see the wood for the trees. I feel that the key to your healing lies in answering these questions. Its not easy, but I’d love to know things were getting better. BTW, breast cancer is a result of giving without receiving….in a nutshell, that is. Didn’t you have breast cancer at one time? Lots of love to you Robyn. You really are a beautiful soul. I feel it.

        October 2, 2012 at 1:50 PM

  2. Yes – I agree both of these writers have been to ‘that place’ — wonder why some of us have to go there – and others seem to skate through life never knowing it exists. Hanging in – just got confirmation that I have a condition called “developmental hip dysplasia” essentially means I was born with very shallow hip sockets that can’t support my femur – thus unstable … dislocations and pain 😦 It was made worse by surgery done in 2010 to try to eliminate impingement of the ball and socket … wrong thing! Thus explains my decline. Will think about all you have said here – but truly I’m not averse to receiving — just seems most are very absorbed in their own lives and only have so much to give. I myself enjoy giving – true – but don’t see that as bad thing? The breast cancer at 37 was a shocker, though so many generations of women in my family were plagued with this (mother/grandmother/aunts/cousins etc.) There is a genetic component at play BRCA2. Do you think the emotional/energtic drivers control congenital defects and genes? I have tried to wrap my head around that — just can’t quite accept it. Some of us may just be dealt a more difficult hand physically… but not certain. In any case dear Yaz — thank you so much for sharing thoughts here — always open and wanting to learn more… and know you have had your share of challenge and thus acquired wisdom. Sending tons of Love your way ~ Gratitude and Wellness always ~ R

    October 3, 2012 at 12:29 PM

  3. Beverley Burgess Bell

    Magnificent photos and poignant poems are a powerful combination.
    Do try to get some Reiki treatments to help you with your pain. Better still, find a Reiki master/teacher in your area to teach you Level 1 so that you can treat yourself. My very best to you.

    October 12, 2012 at 3:32 PM

    • Robyn Lee

      Beverly, thank you so much for this lovely comment. I have done some Reiki, though not a lot. Maybe time to revisit.. the problem is being defined as unusable hip joints, but regardless of there this goes – I am sure Reiki can only help ~ Sending good wishes and gratitude, Robyn

      October 13, 2012 at 12:49 AM

  4. Dear Ms. Robyn Lee.
    I am sorry for my bad english.
    In this post I read about: spiritual, religion, transcendental, God, and mystery. I think, even if you come from the western world that are rational, you also know that irational mystery.

    I come from eastern parts of the world, so, in everyday life, I always pray. Eat, drink, go out of the house, driving a car, getting out of bed, going to sleep, it all begins with prayer.

    About Disease.
    Previously, I apologize, if you do not like this comment. Disease, in view of the east, stems from a psychological imbalance. That disease, originally comes from bad behavior, for example, are: say rude, jealous, spiteful, libelous, slanderous, dare to parents, lying, adultery, basically, all behavior are forbidden by God, or all the bad behavior that we do not realize. People who have good behavior, said “Ah”, with the intent of degrading parents when speaking, can cause pain. What I want to say is, considered small by humans, is great in the sight of God. It is a spiritual mystery in transendent.

    Healing Disease.
    I studied the healing of disease in recent years. In a nutshell is:
    1. Apologize to the parents, about the mistakes we made, either to them, or about the way of life we ​​choose.
    2. Begged forgiveness from friends and people who feel hurt because of our bad behavor and our actions.
    3. Apologize to God, that we can not be human as God intended.
    4. Improve our behavior, so we have a good behavior.
    5. Start healing with: thinking correctly, speak the truth and do the right thing.

    It seems, to be healthy mentally and physically, we have to be “Saints” ….. :), In the view of the eastern world. But now, the West began researching “Whole Health”, by including spiritual health, in assessing a person’s health.

    I know from your posts, that you have a very good behavior. I see, that with good behavor, diseases cured by itself. I just want you healthy ….. 🙂

    August 11, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    • Thank Achmar — I appreciate your good and loving wishes…
      I will do my best dear friend ~ Blessings to you always, Robyn

      August 11, 2013 at 10:32 AM

  5. Where are you?

    August 11, 2013 at 7:01 AM

    • Hi Hilal… I am in process of cosulting with medical doctors about the hip problem I have had from birth – namely congenital hip dysplasia. My hip sockets (acetabulum) do not have enough bone to hold my joint securely and thus my leg dislocates frequently causing much pain. It is a mechanical problem, that is not easy to fix as I compensated well until my 30s and then was misdagnosed for many years as having a spine problem (had surgery for that which was not the answer and made things worse). In any case, I am working hard to finda solution and hopefully regain more funciton in walking/sitting etc. Thank you for our concern hilal. I read your long post on the other thread… it is interesting… and I do live a very pure life in the sense you speak, but sometimes “bad things happen to good people” ~ there are examples everywhere. I send you love and blessings, Robyn

      August 11, 2013 at 8:47 AM

  6. Several hours ago, I browse your web pages. It makes me surprised. I do not think you are facing an extraordinary things. And I’m afraid you are no longer open your blog. I feel guilty, because I never check the pages of your blog, because of the photos I saw, you look beautiful and healthy. In fact, I feel, I do not deserve to be your friend who comes from a big city and a great country!

    Sometimes about “bad things happen to good people”.
    Yes, you are correct. In fact, something big must have come on a person’s life. Something big was two:
    1. Something that causes distress, eastern people call it “test”, to enhance our spiritual quality.
    2. Something that causes pleasure, the east called it a “blessing”, as well as “test”. Is it worth someone’s blessed … ? Did he not become arrogant? :). Yes, what we experience, sometimes not our fault …. But both good & bad experience, will ultimately improve our actuality.

    About your disease.
    I understand, a few years ago I studied anatomy in my faculty. My lecturer once said that, sometimes, diagnosing a disease, is more difficult than treating illness. I pray, I hope you get better soon …. 🙂

    I love to read your comments. Hope you get better soon and gets a lot of blessings….. 🙂 Hilal Achmar

    August 11, 2013 at 9:53 AM

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