Personification in Prose and Poetry
Like other types of metaphors, personification is much more than an ornamental device added to a text to keep readers amused. Used effectively, personification encourages us to view our surroundings from a fresh perspective. As Zoltan Kovecses notes in Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (2002), "Personification permits us to use knowledge about ourselves to comprehend other aspects of the world, such as time, death, natural forces, inanimate objects, etc."
Consider how John Steinbeck uses personification in his short story "Flight" (1938) to describe "the wild coast" south of Monterey, California:
The farm buildings huddled like the clinging aphids on the mountain skirts, crouched low to the ground as though the wind might blow them into the sea. . . .As Steinbeck demonstrates, an important function of personification in literature is to bring the inanimate world to life--and in this story in particular, to show how characters may be in conflict with a hostile environment.
Five-fingered ferns hung over the water and dropped spray from their fingertips. . . .
The high mountain wind coasted sighing through the pass and whistled on the edges of the big blocks of broken granite. . . .
A scar of green grass cut across the flat. And behind the flat another mountain rose, desolate with dead rocks and starving little black bushes. . . .
Gradually the sharp snaggled edge of the ridge stood out above them, rotten granite tortured and eaten by the winds of time. Pepe had dropped his reins on the horn, leaving direction to the horse. The brush grabbed at his legs in the dark until one knee of his jeans was ripped.
Now let's look at some other ways in which personification has been used to dramatize ideas and communicate experiences in prose and poetry.
- The Lake Is a Mouth
These are the lips of the lake, on which no beard grows. It licks its chops from time to time.
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
- A Snickering, Flickering Piano
My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.
(John Updike, "Player Piano")
- Fingers of Sunshine
Hadn't she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning--hadn't she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?
(Edith Wharton, The Mother's Recompense, 1925)
- The Wind Is a Playful Child
Pearl Button swung on the little gate in front of the House of Boxes. It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it.
(Katherine Mansfield, "How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped," 1912)
- The Gentleman Caller
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--
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess--in the Ring--
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain--
We passed the Setting Sun--
Or rather--He passed us--
The Dews drew quivering and chill--
For only Gossamer, my Gown--
My Tippet--only Tulle--
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground--
The Roof was scarcely visible--
The Cornice--in the Ground
Since then--'tis Centuries--and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity--
(Emily Dickinson, "Because I could not stop for death")
Pink is what red looks like when it kicks off its shoes and lets its hair down. Pink is the boudoir color, the cherubic color, the color of Heaven's gates. . . . Pink is as laid back as beige, but while beige is dull and bland, pink is laid back with attitude.
(Tom Robbins, "The Eight-Story Kiss." Wild Ducks Flying Backward. Random House, 2005)
- Love Is a Brute
Passion's a good, stupid horse that will pull the plough six days a week if you give him the run of his heels on Sundays. But love's a nervous, awkward, over-mastering brute; if you can't rein him, it's best to have no truck with him.
(Lord Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers)
- A Mirror and a Lake
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful--
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
(Sylvia Plath, "Mirror")
- Knocks and Sighs
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
(W.H. Auden, "As I Walked Out One Evening")
- Devouring, Swift-Footed Time
Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion's paws,
And make the earth devour her own sweet brood;
Pluck the keen teeth from the fierce tiger's jaws,
And burn the long-lived phoenix in her blood;
Make glad and sorry seasons as thou fleets,
And do whate'er thou wilt, swift-footed Time,
To the wide world and all her fading sweets;
But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 19)
It's your turn now. Without feeling that you're in competition with Shakespeare or Emily Dickinson, try your hand at creating a fresh example of personification. Simply take any inanimate object or abstraction and help us see or understand it in a new way by giving it human qualities or abilities.