Breaking Down the Meaning of Personification
Simply put, Personification is a figure of speechOpens in new window by which, in imagination, we attribute human characteristics or intelligence and personalityOpens in new window to inanimate objects, abstract concepts (ideas and emotion), or unintelligent beings.
A personification, according to the views of Emma Stafford, can be seen as a simple case of catachresisOpens in new window (the mouth of a river), and as a complex idea that has been deified to the point of receiving the kind of cult associated with the Olympian gods (e.g. the goddess Ate), or a rhetorical device on the spectrum between these two extremes.
The First Degree of Personification
Personification exists in three degrees. In the first degree of personification, the object is presented as having some qualities that properly belong only to living creatures. Thus, we speak of mouth of a river, or say that, stream water quenched the thirst of a nomadic man.
This degree of personification is most frequently exhibited by the use of some appellative that strictly applies only to living beings. In many instances, this has become so common, and in many others, it requires so little effort of the imagination, that it is scarcely noticed. Trees are called majestic, rivers or breezes gentle, the spring is said to smile, and winter is termed frowning, with no conscious excitement or extraordinary effort of the mind.
Often indicated by the Use of Personal Pronouns having Genders — The first degree of personification is often exhibited by simply using the masculineOpens in new window or feminineOpens in new window pronounOpens in new window instead of the neuter. Thus, a boat is represented as a female, war as a male, in these expressions:
Sometimes we meet with ‘her’ and ‘his’ instead of ‘its’ in the English Bible, and in other ancient books, when no personification was intended; for ‘its’, the possessive case of ‘it’, is a modern word, and began to be used only about the middle of the 16th century, and did not become common till many years after. In such expressions, as:
- “It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel;”
- “Put up thy sword into his place,”
In the Bible, there is no personification, because the neuter possessive pronoun ‘its’ was not then used. From an ignorance of this fact, Dr. jamieson, in his Rhetoric, wrongly charges Milton with using a false gender in this passage:
- “His form
Had not lost all her original brightness,
Nor appeared less than archangel ruined.”
Milton did not wish to use ‘its,’ which was then a novel word; indeed, he employed it only two or three times in his “Paradise Lost.” In this case, forma, the Latin word for form, being feminine, he chose her for the possessive case rather than his. Its is found in some copies of the English Bible once, in Leviticus xxv. 5 — “that which growth of its own accord;” but the translators even here originally used the word it.
Personification by the use of appellatives is very common; by the use of personal pronounsOpens in new window indicating gender it is less common, and care should be taken not to employ it so frequently as to betray a mannerism, and offend good taste.
The Second Degree of Personification
The second degree of personification involves the representation of an object as acting, or manifesting emotionOpens in new window, like a thing of life.
If the student carefully reads the best authors, he will find that personification of this degree is much less common than the first-degree. Indeed, many vigorous writers and eloquent orators never employ it. If used too frequently, the style appears affected and stilted.
Sometimes employed for Conciseness and Convenience only — There are, however, personifications of this kind, which are employed not as expressions of excited feeling, but as convenient condensations, to avoid circumlocutions, and the frequent repetitions of long descriptions. Thus, the word “nature” is used as though it were the name of a person, when evidently the author does not intend to personify any fancied being or power, but it is more convenient to use that appellation than some such expression as “the plan according to which material things act,” or “the properties which this subject has;” and it is more convenient to represent it as a person than to speak of the phenomena described as simple effects.
“Nature preserves a wonderful harmony among the animal and vegetable kingdoms.” That is, the plan on which the universe is constructed is such that a wonderful harmony is preserved. Professor Tyndall, in his treatise on “Heat, a Mode of Motion,” speaking of the chilling and freezing of the surface of a lake, and the sinking of the cold water to the bottom, says:
- “Supposing this to continue, the ice would sink as it was formed and the process would not cease until the entire water of the lake would be solidified. Death to every living thing in the water would be the consequence. But just when matters become critical, Nature steps aside from her ordinary proceeding, causes the water to expand by cooling, and the cold-water swims like a scum on the surface of the warmer water underneath.” This use of the word nature is so common that another illustration may not be inappropriate, taken from a sermon by Rev. Dr. Duntington. Speaking of Nature, he says:
- “Just when she discloses to our perceptions any of her grandest pictures, she shuts our lips. Whenever she stirs our sense of the sublime, she sternly tells us, ‘My children, be dumb!”
This is genuine Personification. But often, as in the former instances, the word is used as a convenient single term or symbol for “the plan of existing things.” If the word God is used instead of Nature, it expresses a different idea, directing the attention to an intelligent, powerful person; but the word “nature” simply indicates that the system of material things is such that the result must follow.
In the same way war, peace, commerce, government, law, education, industry, order, temperance, virtue, vice, every particular passion, and almost every complex agency, may be personified, or represented as acting, and producing effects, when the author does not intend to express unwanted emotion, but simply finds it the most convenient in this way to express his views of the influence of the thing considered.
We subjoin a few instances:
- “Logic does not, like philosophy, enunciate any particular truths, but teaches the priciples of universal reasoning.” Strictly speaking, this is Personification, which is used to avoid some such circumlocution as this: “In treatises on logic, pupils are not taught,” etc.
- “What tongue shall describe the ravages of the sword?” “Of the sword,” instead of “produced by war.”
- “Photography preserves for us the lineaments of our loved ones long since departed.”
Such an expression might arise from strong emotion, and a desire to eulogize photography, and might be employed as a convenient single term instead of many, which would be scientificiacally more correct.
Often by a little study a writer may condense his style, and at the same time render it more vigorous, by this kind of personification.
Washington gives us a good instance of this kind of personification, which even rises into the higher and genuine figure, when in his first Inaugural Address as President he says:
- “I was summoned by my country, whose voive I can never hear but with veneration and love, from a retreat which I had chosen, with the fondest predilection and in my flattering hopes, with an immutable decision, as the asylum of my declining years.” How much more striking is the following than it would be if for genius, as a person, were substituted the many words necessary to express the same idea scientifically:
- “Genius has surrounded your homes with comfort, has given you control of the blind forces of nature, and made the flowers of paradise bloom in the poor man’s garden.” How much thought is condensed into this vigorous expression of Wendell Phillips:
- “The Press says, It is all right; the Pulpit cries, Amen!” Is not a philosophical truth nervously expressed by these words:
- “When Feeling comes in at the door, Reason has nothing to do but jump out by the window?”
Let the student carefully notice the prevalence of this figure in good writings, and endeavor to ascertain whether it is resorted to as a result of strong emotion and a lively fancy, or from mere economy of speech, and the study will naturally improve his own style.
Used in Allegories, and in Humorous Productions. — it is scarcely nececessary to add that in allegories Personifications are almost always employed, and that in humorous productions often nations or national characteristics are represented as persons. “John Bull” represents England, or an Englishman; “Brother Jonathan,” the United States, or an American. The ancients, from their numerous idols and complicated mythology, could employ a kind of personification of this nature more than the moderns.
An instance in which Personification is extended, and is by some called an Allegory, is afforted by John Quincy Adams in his description of Eloquence:
- “At the revival of letters in modern Europe, Eloquence, together with her sister muses, awoke and shook the poppies from her brow. But their torpors still lingered in her veins. In the interval her voice was gone; her favorite language were extinct; her organs were no longer attuned to harmony, and her hearers could no longer understand her speech. She ascended the tribunals of justice; there she found her child, Persuasion, manacled and pinioned by the letter of the law; there she beheld the image of herself, stammering in barbarous Latin, and staggering under the lumber of a thousand volumes.”
This long description, of which we have given only a small part, is not an Allegory, as it does not suggest to us any other meaning than that which lies on its surface. It is simply an extended Personification of the second degree. Such long-drawn-out personifications must be executed with great skill, or they weary without instructing. Properly wrought, they relieve didactic writing.
The Third Degree of Personification
The third degree of Personification is seen when an object is addressed as if alive, and listening to the speaker.
When the mind is sufficiently aroused, this boldest kind of Personification is pre-eminently forcible and beautiful. Thus, Edward Everett, at the conclusion of an essay on comets, having awakened a great interest in the subject, and described glowingly the beauties and sublimity of the starry heavens, suddenly makes the following address to one then visible:
- “Return, thou mysterious traveler, to the depths of the heavens, never again to be seen by the eyes of men now living! Thou hast run thy race with glory; millions of eyes have gazed upon thee with wonder; but they shall never look upon thee again. Since thy last appearance in these lower skies, empires, languages, and races of men have passed away. Haply when, wheeling up again from the celestial abysses, thou art once more seen by the dwellers on earth, the languages we speak shall also be forgotten, and science shall have fled to the uttermost corners of the earth. But even there his hand, that now marks out thy wondrous circuit, shall still guide thy course, and then as now Hesper will smile at thy approach, and Arcturus, with his sons, rejoice at thy coming.”
The student will observe that the passages italicized in the above indicate also Personifications of the second degree.
When may this Degree be employed? — Personification of this kind need not be confined to the sublimest subjects or to oratorical writing. It is only needful that the circumstances should render it appropriate. When Robinson Crusoe is represented as ship-wrecked and cast on the desolate islanc, and as finding some money, the narrative thus proceeds:
- “I smiled to myself at the sight of this money. ‘Oh, drug!’ I exclaimed, ‘what art thou good for? Thou art not worth to me, no, not the taking off the ground; one of these knives is worth all this heap; I have no manner of use for thee; e’en remain where thou art, and go to the bottom, as a creature not worth saving.’” This is natural and impressive.
How much Used — It would be easy to fill this volue with beautiful specimens of Personification. Especially does it abound in poetry. It is also often found in oratory. Yet many eminent orators never use what we call Personification of the third degree, and you may read hundreds of volumes in prose without a single example. Many elegant speakers have never employed it once.
How sublime is Milton’s oft-quoted address to Light!
- “Hail! holy Light, offspring of Heaven, first-born,
Or of the Eternal, co-eternal beam,
May I express thee unblamed – since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity, dwelt thou in thee,
Bribht effluence of bright essence increate?”
Not less sublime is Byron’s address to the Ocean, beginning thus:
- “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain:
Man marks the earth with ruin; his control
Stops with thy shore; upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths, with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.”
Oftentimes thus by personification much thought and instruction can be conveyed, under the guise of referring to the qualities and circumstances of the object addressed. Thus, Shakespeare says to Sleep:
- “Oh, thou dull god! Why liest thou with the vile,
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case, or a common ’larum-bell?
Wilt thou, upon the high and giddy mast,
Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude, imperious surge?
Canst thou, oh, partial sleep! Give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And, in the calmest and the stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then, happy, low, lie down,
Uneasy is that head that wears a crown.”
Directions for Using Personification
- Personification of the higher degrees should be used sparingly, or the style will appear too artistic to please the taste.
- The occasion should always justify its use.
- Let it not be dwelt upon too long, and the idea of personality be carried out so far as to weary or displease the hearer.
Personification is sometimes termed Prosopopoeia, but, strictly speaking, ProsopopoeiaOpens in new window is more general, and includes all kinds of speaking in which the speaker represents for the time either a personified thing or a person absent or deceased. It therefore includes both Personification and ApostropheOpens in new window, which is specifically covered in a separate studies.