Glossary Home Literary Device


Zoomorphism describes how non-human animal traits are given to humans, events and forces.

Writers utilize this technique in order to speak more clearly and interestingly about a human subject. But, it can also say something about their perception of the animal. If a human being is compared to a rabid dog, then a reader will already have some idea of the raging, out of control nature of this person. Alternatively, if a human said to have dove-like features then a reader should assume they are beautiful, peace-loving, and perhaps a pacificist.

Zoomorphism is much less common than anthropomorphism and more often than not this technique is found in stories and books. But, it appears in poetry as well.


Examples of Zoomorphism in Literature

Example #1 The Skunk by Seamus Heaney

Take a look at ‘The Skunk’ by Seamus Heaney as an example. In this poem, he compares his wife to a single, mysterious, and yet ordinary, skunk that passes by his veranda.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,

Ordinary, mysterious skunk,

Mythologized, demythologized,

Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.


It all came back to me last night, stirred

By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,

Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer

For the black plunge-line nightdress.

It is in the second half of the poem that Heaney’s speaker clearly describes how he sees his wife as the skunk. She is just as mysterious and elusive, yet at the same time ordinary and demystified. By the end of the poem, it appears that the speaker and his wife are starting to come back together again, or at least in his mind. He can recall what it is like to hear and see her near him, as she moves around the room. She is moving as a skunk would move but doing the things his wife would. 

Example #2 To Be of Use by Marge Piercy 

In this poem, Piercy depicts one speaker’s preference to be around those who work hard and understand the importance of perseverance. The poem takes the reader through metaphorical comparisons between oxen, water buffalo, and seals. Each has their own skill, surety, and confidence in their mutual environments. The speaker says that she is interested in people who embody these same traits. She goes on, referencing the pleasures and payoffs of hard work and connecting them to a Hopi vase and greek amphora. Just as these creations cry out for work, so too do human beings. Take a look at these lines that use zoomorphism: 

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
here, the poet is describing the type of hardworking person she loves the most, ones who work like an ox. They “pull like water buffalo” and have patience. They know what it means to endeavor and suffer for the desired outcome

Example #3 Of Mothers, among other things by A.K. Ramanujan

This poem is a vibrant portrait of the speaker’s mother and the way she has moved through the world. It is in the third stanza that the poet first makes us of zoomorphism. He compares his mother, who is the subject of this poem and someone who he admires, to an eagle. He describes how her hands “are a wet eagle’s”. This brings back some of the strength the speaker has previously associated with her in the first two stanzas.
An eagle represents power, and in this instance: strength in the face of adversity. The eagle’s feet might be wet, but they still have talons. There are a number of other contrasts in the following lines as the eagle’s feet are both “black” and “pink crinkled”.

His mother suffered in her life. She experienced setbacks, such as getting “one talon crippled in a garden trap set for a mouse”. She was permanently changed and to this day, as is stated in the fifth stanza, the speaker can see the impact of this injury. The imagery of the bird is continued in ‘Of Mothers, among other things’ as the speaker references the mother saris. They do not cling as they might’ve done in the past, but “hang loose“ like “feathers of a onetime wing”. She is no longer the eagle she used to be, but parts of her past still exist. 

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