The Meaning and Usage of Personification
Personification is believed to be related to the word anthropomorphism, which is a combination of the Greek words "anthropos" (human) and "morphe" (shape or form). In truth, however, anthropomorphism is not the same as personification.
The term "personification" came into usage around 1700 and is often used as an umbrella term to denote the attribution of human characteristics to something non-human. Anthropomorphism is a term that originally meant giving human characteristics to the gods, of which there were many in ancient times.
Can the wind really howl at your door? Does death come and get you? Is love truly blind? Does time creep up on you?
Obviously, the answer to all the above questions is NO. The wind can't howl, death cannot come and get you, love is neither blind nor sighted, and time is incapable of creeping in any capacity.
Personification is a device we use to attribute human characteristics to things which are not human. It's a figure of speech that adds color to language and is used to enrich the texts of poetry and prose the world over.
For the purposes of this article, the term "personification" is used as a general term to describe the act of "personifying" anything non-human, whether that's an abstract idea, an animal, or a force of nature.
Personification in Poetry
Here's a great example of how the poet Longfellow uses personification to convey a dark and ominous mood:
- And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Paul Revere's Ride
This is a creepy representation of what one might imagine when looking at dark, curtainless windows at a certain time of day. Depending on their construction, windows in some houses are almost like the building's eyes - and nothing is scarier than eyes that appear black, empty and dead, but nevertheless fixed on you.
Compare Longfellow's use of personification to that of William Wordsworth in one of his most famous poems, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud:
- Ten thousand saw I at a glance (daffodils)
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
Daffodils tossing their heads and dancing more joyfully than the nearby waves: nature provides ample opportunities for personification in the hands of a skilled craftsman. Not forgetting, of course, the loneliness of the cloud mentioned in the poem's title.
Personification is a device we use to attribute human characteristics to things which are not human
Definition of Personification
Personification is defined in a wide variety of dictionaries as follows:
1. the attribution of human nature or character to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions, especially as a rhetorical figure.
2. the representation of a thing or abstraction in the form of a person, as in art.
3. the person or thing embodying a quality or the like; an embodiment or incarnation: He is the personification of tact.
4. an imaginary person or creature conceived or figured to represent a thing or abstraction.
Personification in Prose
Personification can be found in prose just as easily as in poetry. One startling example occurs in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robe to reveal two figures to Ebenezer Scrooge, saying:
- This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.
These serve as both examples of metaphor and of personification; after all, you can't get much more "personified" than by turning a concept (ignorance, want) into an actual person, can you?
Here's another example found in Edith Nesbit's classic story, The Railway Children:
- Down below they could see the line of the railway, and the black yawning mouth of a tunnel.
Further Examples of Personification
In the poem Mirror by Sylvia Plath, the poet gives the inanimate mirror the ability to speak, see, and swallow, pointing out that it is also honest and frank:
- I am silver and exact.
I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful --
Here is perhaps a more familiar example of personification in a much-quoted line by the poet Emily Dickinson:
- Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.
Personification also figures largely in our everyday speech and in the expressions we use to make a point or be more descriptive:
- The slot machine ate his money
- The engine wheezed
- The candle flame danced
- The moon looked down on us
- The thunder grumbled
- The city that never sleeps
- The party died when he left
- The wind whispered
- The alarm clock screamed at me
Nature provides ample opportunities for personification in the hands of a skilled craftsman
Personification Adds Impact
Personification is a figure of speech and, as such, is used to spice up your writing - or speech - and give it extra flavor. It's like sprinkling salt and pepper on your food.
You can inject personification into anything you write simply by applying human characteristics or qualities to the items in your text. For example, take clothes hanging out to dry. You might write the following:
- The clothes hung on the washing line and the wind moved them around.
That sets the scene, but it's pretty dull. Let's add personification to jazz things up a little:
- The clothes danced on the washing line as the wind tickled them.
You can see straight away how this changes everything. Suddenly the clothes are not just hanging there; they're dancing. And the wind is making them do it. It conjures up images of children giggling and bouncing about as another person teases them.
Here's another example. Imagine it's the middle of October, the days are getting shorter and the temperature continues to drop. In some parts of the world it might even get cold enough for the odd snowflake or two:
- I don't know if climate change is behind it, but I didn't expect to see snow in the heart of October.
Is it Personification?
The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man appears in the 1984 film Ghostbusters as the physical manifestation of the Sumerian demon Gozer. But is it an example of personification?
Here's a better example from the poem Cataract Operation by the English poet Simon Armitage:
- From pillar to post; a pantomime
of damp forgotten washing
on the washing line.
So, in the breeze:
the ole of a crimson towel,
the cancan of a ra ra skirt,
the monkey business of a shirt
pegged only by its sleeve,
of a handkerchief.
In this case, the wind is making the various items on the line behave like people, some dancing, some waving, some clowning around.
Personification versus Prosopopoeai
According to Wikipedia, prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device (figure of speech) in which a speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or object. The term derives from the Greek roots prósopon (face, person) and poiéin (to make, to do). It is also used when an author wishes to present an unpopular point of view, using a popular stereotype to do so and thus avoiding getting the blame directly.
Think of the manifold sayings of Homer Simpson, more often attributed to him than to the writer who penned the words. The point can be stretched to include ventriloquists, whose dummies are allowed to get away with things their operators wouldn't - under normal circumstances.