Personification: A fondness for life personification

The prevalence of personification in literature and life reflects our preference for vital animated beings over inanimate objects.

Personification: A fondness for life

From English Composition and Rhetoric, by Alexander Bain, and Aids to English Composition, by Richard Green Parker:

I. Personification consists in attributing life and mind to inanimate things.

The mountains sing together, the hills rejoice and clap their hands.
Personification is a figure of various degrees.


II. The highest degree of personification ascribes to inanimate objects human feelings and purposes, as well as gender.

A. On Eve's taking the forbidden fruit, Milton assigns human attributes to Earth and Nature:
So saying, her rash hand, in evil hour,
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate!
Earth felt the wound; and Nature from her seat
, through all her works, gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.
B. Shelley's poem “Cloud” is personification throughout:
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under;
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.
C. Besides the actual objects of nature, it is not unusual to personify abstractions of the mind.
1. Examples of abstractions of the mind are life, death, truth, love, virtue, evil, sin, hope, wisdom, genius, friendship, pleasure, vengeance.
Can wisdom lend, with all her boasted power,
The pledge of joy's anticipated hour?
2. By a process short of personification (metaphor), abstractions may be represented as real things.
They are thereby be rendered more vivid. Thus time is a river, a shore, a wave on the ocean of eternity. Life is a vapor, a dream, a shadow.
D. Mythology gave personal existence to all the imposing objects and appearances of nature.
Ancient storytellers personified the sun, moon, and stars; the sky, earth, seas, mountains, rocks, hills, valleys, rivers, springs, floods; the winds, clouds, thunder, hail; the day, night, dawn, light, dark; the seasons. They also personified the important productions of nature, such as corn and wine.
These personifications are retained in the poetry of all languages, for the sake of clothing the objects with the interest that personality gives.


II. An inferior degree of personification consists in merely attributing to inanimate objects some quality of living beings.

Thus, a raging storm, a deceitful disease, a cruel disaster — are familiar expressions.
This, indeed, is so obscure a degree of personification, that it might, perhaps, be properly classed with simple metaphors, which almost escape our observation:
the thirsty ground, a dying lamp, the angry sea, a cruel disaster, the smiling year


III. The English language, by reserving the distinction of gender for living beings that have sex, gives special scope for personification.

A. In many languages (Greek, Latin, French, German, etc,), gender is attributed to inanimate objects in a manner that deprives it of all its meaning.
In English, the masculine and feminine pronouns are regularly applied only to persons and to the more distinguished animals. Hence they are closely associated in our minds with personality; and their occasional application to things without life has at once a personifying effect.


IV. The value of personification arises from the interest awakened in us by the actions, feelings, and deportment of beings like ourselves.

A. One effect of advancing civilization is to enlarge the interest that we take in our fellow-creatures.
B. From the earliest times, this interest has been extended by ascribing human feelings to the objects of the outer world on some pretext of remote resemblance.
1. Some of the strongest feelings of our nature have reference to persons: love, admiration, vanity, the thirst for power, revenge, derision.
2. The compositions that touch the deepest chords of the mind deal principally with persons, as in poetry, romance, and history.
3. Thus the powers of nature, as the winds and running streams, have been assimilated to living beings, and fancifully endowed with will, purpose, and feeling, so as to be recommended to our human sympathies.

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