Glossary Home Literary Device

Pathetic Fallacy

Pathetic fallacy is used to describe the attribution of human emotions and actions onto non-human things found in nature.

The literary device is a kind of personification that is focused much more closely on the poet’s own emotional state and that which they are describing.

The term was first coined by John Ruskin in the book Modern Painters. It has fallen out of favour by some though as it was originally created to refer to poor, sentimental descriptions, or at least that’s how Ruskin saw them. He used it against poets such as Keats, Wordsworth and Shelley. Nowadays, due to a change in the understood meaning of words such as “fallacy” writers and critics usually use personification to describe this literary technique instead.


Examples of Pathetic Fallacy

The best examples come from moments in which the poet’s tone comes through clearly. For instance, the joy in William Wordsworth‘s Daffodils‘. Take a look at these lines as an example of how he has imbued the nature around him with very human emotions that mirror his own:

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
In these lines the poet goes so far as to acknowledge his own emotions, breaking the barrier between the reader and the writer. The words “danced,” “glee,” and “jocund” are all connected to general happiness that lacks a solid definition or boundaries. It has expanded beyond the poet and into the world that initiated it within his heart.
Let’s take a look at another example of pathetic fallacy as utilized in Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Raven‘.
  “Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
    Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
    On this home by Horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!”
            Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
In these lines, the speaker/poet, who is contending with the presence of the raven in his house and all it might portend, describes its aura as “evil”. The emotion in these lines is strong, as is the human influence the bird has over the speaker. Despite the speaker’s best efforts to get it to talk, he “implore[s]” it over and over again to do so, all it says is “Nevermore”.
Other examples of pathetic fallacy can be found in Alfred Lord Tennyson‘s Maud‘ and Birches‘ by Robert Frost.

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