Personification is a particular component of poetry and prose alike. Personification poems are pieces of poetry in which the main literary device employed by the poet is that of personification, also sometimes known as anthropomorphizing. Personification poems have been written for hundreds of years, and examples of these poems range from the poetry of antiquity all the way up to poems written in the modern age. Understanding personification poems will enhance your understanding of both poetry and prose in general, and you will be better able to analyze the use of literary devices in the work you read in the future.
What is Personification?
At a basic level, personification is the assignment of human attributes and qualities to non-human entities, objects, animals, and even concepts or emotions. By portraying objects as possessive of human qualities, authors allow them to become relatable to the reader in a new and unique way. Assigning human attributes is also a powerful way to describe an object very specifically and differently than an author would be able to by simply listing flat characteristics. Anthropomorphism is another term that means essentially the same thing as personification. To anthropomorphize something is to make it human in the way that you talk or feel about it. A simple example would be the phrase, “The sky is crying.” The sky is being given a human attribute, specifically the ability to cry. This phrase also suggests that the sky can exhibit sadness, or any emotion that would result in crying. Similar examples include, “The stars danced across the sky,” “The car groaned underneath the weight,” and “The feeling snuck up on me.” In each of these phrases, the object is behaving in a human way, and the human qualities intensify the descriptions of the objects.
What is a Personification Poem?
Personification in poetry has existed for about as long as humans have been writing poetry, prose, or fiction. The earliest examples of personification are most likely the anthropomorphizing of animals and objects in the traditions of ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman mythology; the literature of these mythologies were often written in the form of poetry, though some writings may be considered prose. The Roman deity Cura, for example, is a personification of care and concern; the non-human concept of concern was attributed a human form in this instance of personification. Similar examples include the Greek god Eros is the personification of the human attribute of love. In addition, the Egyptian god Sobek takes the form of a crocodile; therefore, the non-human crocodile is assigned human level intelligence and wisdom. In Christianity, the epitome of personification is the attribution to the serpent in Genesis of the human tendency towards sin and temptation. A majority of ancient mythology and religion included the personification of non-human animals, ideas, and objects. This personification made the mythological and religious figures more relatable; people are more likely to worship or idolize those objects or ideas in which they see a human nature similar to their own.
A personification poem, in a general sense, is a piece of poetry that examines an object, concept, or animal, but describes or speaks to that thing as if it were a human, attributing human characteristics to it in the process. Personification poems often illustrate the beauty of the specific thing being personified, as it forces the reader to interpret and think about that thing in a way it is not usually interpreted or thought about. A personification poem is a medium through which a writer can examine something non-human in a more detailed and personal way, and in so doing make the reader aware of that thing’s unique beauty or appeal. Examples of such objects are often found in nature; they include trees, animals, the wind, the ocean, etc.
Famous Personification Poems
A poet who incorporated a great deal of personification into his work was John Keats, an English Romantic poet who wrote in the early nineteenth century. In “To Autumn,” Keats personifies the season, using a personification device in nearly every line. He begins, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.” Keats immediately established autumn as a personified non-human entity by referring to it as a friend of the sun; in attributing the quality of friendliness to the season, he is personifying the sun, the recipient of friendship, as well. The next lines describe autumn “Conspiring with him how to load and bless / with fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.” The human quality attributed to autumn and the sun here is the mental ability to think, and specifically to conspire with one another.
The poem in its entirety is peppered with instances of the personification of autumn. The title itself, in fact, identifies the poem as an ode, a specific kind of poem that Keats was famous for. An ode is written to praise and glorify its subject, and in doing so, the poem often describes the subject in an emotional and human manner. Odes are frequently written about components of nature, as “To Autumn” is. The following segment of the ode brings the personification to a different level, describing autumn as a person in more physical human details: “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store? / Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find / Thee sitting careless on a granary floor / Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind / Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep / Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook / Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers.” In these lines, Keats is using personification to present an image to the reader of autumn as a laborer, physically contributing to the changing seasons. In this example, autumn even possesses the human attribute of hair, “soft-lifted by the winnowing wind.” The personification of autumn allows Keats to explore the beauty of the season in a new way, and in turn, the reader thinks about autumn as far more than just a segment of the year.
Keats’ other odes are full of personification as well, and they include “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy.” In both poems, Keats personifies the subject in order to more fully describe it to the reader. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” begins, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness / Thou foster-child of silence and slow time / Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” From the very first lines, Keats describes the urn, a non-human object, as several different human beings: a bride, a foster child, and a historian. In these few words, Keats is attributing a variety of human qualities to a simple Greek vase. This use of personification is a way of expressing to the reader that, though the urn is simply a painted piece of pottery, the illustrations on it tell a far more complex and human tale than a non-human object can convey.
“Ode on Melancholy” personifies the emotion by describing it as a human woman: “Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine / Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine / His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.” Not only is melancholy a human-like being with a capitalized name, but she possesses ‘cloudy trophies’ as well. By personifying melancholy in this way, Keats emphasizes the way in which melancholy can ensnare or trap a person. He provides a certain image for the reader, of melancholy doing upkeep on a trophy room, counting the people she has made sad, or cloudy.
Though odes are essentially structured around the concept of personification, it is a common literary device used in all kinds of poetry. Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, are full of instances of personification, even if the sonnets themselves are not written to praise or glorify the personified object. Sonnet 18, which begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous poems. Though the sonnet is addressed to a person, Shakespeare uses personification in specific places. The sonnet includes a personification of wind in the line, “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,” as Shakespeare attributes to the wind the physical ability to shake. He personifies death as well, in the line “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade.” Shakespeare not only allows death to talk in this line, but he specifically describes death’s ability to brag. These personifications force the reader to read the sonnet’s lines concerning nature in a different way.
Learning More About Poetry
Personification is an important aspect of poetry, particularly when a writer wants to establish for the reader a specific aspect or characteristic of a non-human object, animal, feeling, or idea. However, personification is just one of many literary devices that poets and other writers use to express their ideas. Learning more about these literary devices, including personification in poetry, will increase the strength with which you can analyze poetry, prose, and all types of fiction.