The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Personification: A figure of speech (more specifically a trope) in which human characteristics are bestowed upon anything nonhuman, from an abstract idea to a physical force to an inanimate object to a living organism. Prosopopoeia is often used as a synonym for personification.

The term pathetic fallacy refers to a limited form of personification in which human traits and emotions are attributed to inanimate nature. Compared to personification in general, the pathetic fallacy is narrower in scope, since it applies only to inanimate nature rather than anything nonhuman, and its “humanizing” characterization is typically less sustained.

EXAMPLES: Examples of personification include the phrase “Father Time” and using the word blind to describe love; examples of the pathetic fallacy include using kind or gentle to describe a slight breeze. The following stanza from William Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont” (1807) personifies the castle and uses the pathetic fallacy to characterize the storm:

And this huge Castle, standing here sublime,

I love to see the look with which it braves,

Cased in the unfeeling armor of old time,

The lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling wave.

In his poem “Chicago” (1916), Carl Sandburg personified the city, directly addressing it as “you”:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.

Similarly, Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” (1961) personifies a mirror using the first person, as the poem’s opening lines indicate: “I am silver and exact. / I have no preconceptions.”