“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.
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