Personification is a literary device that refers to the projection of human characteristics onto inanimate objects in order to create imagery.
But, not only objects, other less physical things such as forces of nature (love and death are examples) as well as animals can be transformed through personification.
Personification is a very popular literary technique that can be found in all forms of writing. It appears in poetry, prose poetry, fiction (novels and short stories). Sometimes it is more obvious, usually in the poetic examples, while other times it is integrated into the text in a way that feels obvious and natural. Due to the length of poems compared to prose works, examples of personification will be easier to spot within poetry.
Definition and Explanation of Personification
Personification is a commonly used literary device that refers to moments in which poets, fiction writers, or playwrights give human characteristics to animals, inanimate objects, or forces. The “thing,” whatever it might be, is spoken about or described as though it were human. It is a figure of speech and a type of metaphor that allows the writer to create a different kind of life and movement in something non-human. By giving these “things” recognizably human characteristics, it increases the reader’s ability to relate to them.
Personification or Anthropomorphism
The distinction between these two literary techniques is hard to grasp at first, but when you see a few examples, it becomes obvious. There are several fundamentally similar parts of these techniques, but they are different. Anthropomorphism refers to human characteristics regarding animals and or deities, but not intimate objects or forces (like love). The animal or deity in these examples behaves as though it’s a human being. Animals speak and wear clothes. Such as in the film Happy Feet and the TV show and books, Winnie-the-Pooh.
Personification, on the other hand, does not turn animals, deities, inanimate objects, or forces into human-like characters. It is simply a way of describing something so that the reader can get a better understanding of it.
Examples of Personification in Poetry
Example #1 ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth
There are some very good examples of how human characteristics are applied to non-human things in William Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’ In the following lines, Wordsworth creates an image of the daffodils moving as only humans can.
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
In the last line of this stanza, the daffodils are said to “dance”. This is a very clear example of personification and also gets to one of the most important things to consider about the device. It is not just human verb-based actions that can be given to the inanimate object, creatures, and forces, but also emotions and motivations.
Poets use the technique to convey a particular emotion more clearly, to help the reader understand the entire scene better.
Example #2 ‘Magdalen Walks’ by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s ‘Magdalen Walks’ is a beautiful, nature-based poem that describes a walk through Magdalen College, where Wilde was educated. It speaks on the coming of spring and the vibrant, continually moving elements that herald its arrival. Wilde takes the time to note the lively presence of the trees and flowers around him. Take a look at these lines:
And the plane to the pine-tree is whispering some tale of love
Till it rustles with laughter and tosses its mantle of green,
Example #3 ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson
The use of personification to relay emotion can be seen in what is likely Emily Dickinson’s best-known poem, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. In this dramatic and beautiful text, the force of “Death” is personified. Dickinson capitalized the word to give it more power and agency in her world. This can be seen very clearly through the first and second stanzas of the poem.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
In these lines, the reader can see that the image of death acts as a companion to the speaker. Seemingly, a person in his own right drives a carriage and stops to allow the speaker to embark. Dickinson’s speaker also describes death as taking his time and knowing “no haste.” He is willing to drive casually to their destination.
Why Do Writers Use Personification?
In the case of ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud‘, Wordsworth was interested in helping the reader understand the scene better. He rightly assumed that “dancing” would paint a clearer picture in the reader’s head. But that’s not all, the use of this word, as opposed to another like “shivering” or “quivering,” helps the tone and mood of the text. The poem is lighthearted and wistful, therefore dancing fits in perfectly. It allows the poet to enhance the reader’s ability to imagine a scene. While at the same time, requiring them to use their imagination in a different way. This should be a pleasurable experience. Sometimes, personification is used to create humor in written work. This is usually oriented around children’s literature.
Some words related to personification are embodiment, epitome, manifestation, personifier, and externalization.
Other Poems that Use Personification
There are countless poems written throughout the time that make use of personification. Some of these include:
- ‘Love‘ by Eavan Boland
- ‘Bluebird’ by Charles Bukowski
- ‘How happy is the little stone’ by Emily Dickinson
- ‘Mirror’ by Sylvia Plath
- ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’ by Emily Dickinson
- ‘Hey Diddle, Diddle’ by Mother Goose
- ‘To Autumn’ by John Keats
Related Literary Terms
- Anthropomorphism–used to make animals and deities appear to actually be human beings.
- Characterization–a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Metaphor–used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it, without using “like” or “as”.
- Extended Metaphor— a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.