Prosopographia

An Introduction to Prosopographia

Prosopographia (derives from Greek combination prosopon, “face” or “person,” and graphein, “to write”), is a rhetorical device solely concerned with the vivid description of a person’s appearance by means of his form, stature, virtues, social status, studies, activities, feat of chivalries, etc.

Prosopographia also consists in the description of feigned or imaginary characters, such as devils or harpies. In which case Taylor defines as “the description of imaginary bodies, those which have no corporeal existence, such as harpies, furies, devils” (123). A kind of EnargiaOpens in new window often used for epideictic purposes.

Adopting in verbatim, the observations of Brett Zimman, the author of Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style, “Prosopographia is foregrounded in “The Man of the Crowd,” as the astute narrator describes several types of people he sees in the busy London street, in some cases exhibiting a Dupin-like (and Holmes-like) ability to deduce their occupations simply by their appearances. It is also a central feature of The Literati of New York City .”

Examples of Prosopographia

The following examples are excerpt from Brett Zimmerman's Edgar Allen Poe: Rhetoric and Style, and Burton O. Gideon's Silver Rhetoricae respectively.

  • “They are neither man nor woman –
    They are neither brute nor human –
    They are Ghouls: -
    And their king it is who tolls: -
    And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
    Rolls
    A paean from the bells!
    And his merry bosom swells
    With the paean of the bells!
    And he dances, and he yells.
    — (“The Bells,” 7:121 – 2)
  • He is a monster both in mind and in body; whatever part of mind or body you consider, you will find a monster quivering head, rabid eyes, a dragon's gape, the visage of a Fury, distended belly, hands like talons ready to tear, feet distorted, in short, view his entire physical shape and what else does it all present but a monster? Observe that tongue, observe that wild beast's roar, and you will name it is a monstrosity; probe his mind, you will find a horror; weigh his character, scrutinize his life, you will find all monstrous...through and through he is nothing but a monster.
    — (Erasmus, De copia)
Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae, Figures by Gideon O. Burton | ProsopographiaOpens in new window
Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style by Brett Zimmerman | ProsopographiaOpens in new window
Lanham, Richard A. (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (Print). Los Angeles California: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520273689.