Monday Metaphor: Personification: It’s Alive! It’s Alive!

It’s quite an imaginative feat for a writer to turn an inanimate object, an abstract concept, or animal into a person. But it can be done through Personification, the technique of giving human qualities to something not human. This method of word play is also referred to as Anthropomorphism. Prosopopeia means “giving face,” as in the face of a mountain or the eye of a hurricane.

This picture is the Personification of Constance and Fortitude.

Ancient Greek gods often had human characteristics. The Muses are among my favorites. They collectively represent inspiration for the arts. I’ve always wondered about Urania, the Muse of Astronomy. But I think she is a Muse because the Greeks considered mathematics an art, and astronomy uses math to figure out the heavens. In fact, all of the sciences contain some art and many scientists have been known to be inspired.

“[The Muses] are all of one mind, their hearts are set upon song and their spirit is free from care. He is happy whom the Muses love. For though a man has sorrow and grief in his soul, yet when the servant of the Muses sings, at once he forgets his dark thoughts and remembers not his troubles. Such is the holy gift of the Muses to men.”
~Hesiod~

The Mother of the Muses, Mnemosyne, is the personification of memory. It makes sense because all of the arts require the student to remember vast amounts of facts and practice in order to become proficient.

It was a convention of the Epic Poets to invoke a request of the Muses to inspire them to create the most beautiful poem worthy of their subject.

From ancient times to the present, writers have employed the metaphor of personification.

In the title of this blog post, I am referencing the movie version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Most people (who like old movies) are familiar with that scene. Mary’s scientist gave life to a creature he put together from body parts. In the preface to the novel, Mary says: “I have thus endeavoured to preserve the truth of the elementary principles of human nature. . .” Her monster has both good and bad qualities.

In “talking thing” stories, such as The Brave Little Toaster, by Thomas Disch, it’s the household appliances that are given human characteristics. Their quest to find their original owner has the same adventures and perils as that of a human’s quest.

In Bill Kirk’s The Sum of Our Parts: Circulation Celebration, (Guardian Angel Publishing), the heart comes alive in Eugene Rubel’s amusing illustrations.

My seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Alison, had the class memorize Carl Sandburg’s Fog.

“The fog comes

on little cat feet.

It sits looking over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.”

 In “talking animal” stories, such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte and Wilber and the others talk among themselves, but the people around them do not have the ability to hear them. {I’ll never forget the day I read Charlotte’s Web to my young children. My husband came home from work and found the three of us sitting on the sofa crying. A writer with a deft hand can make the reader believe; and White made us believe Wilber when he said, “I don’t want to die.”}  

Closer to home, you might know these people personally: Mr. Clean, Aunt Jemima, Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger, and The Jolly Green Giant. And you’ve bought these products:

Goldfish, the snack that smiles back, Huggies, the diapers that hug supremely, and Kleenex, the tissue that says “bless you.” And you know “you’re in good hands with Allstate.” I like this personification of the printer: “The printer spit out more copies than I needed.” (on MissSpot’s website).

Sometimes just attributing a name seems to bestow humanlike qualities.

Death, The Grim Reaper, a hooded character draped in black robes or a skeleton.

Father Time, an old bearded man with a scythe. 

Mother Nature, countless guises.

Aesop’s fables are full of personified characters. One of the most poignant stories is that of the lion and the mouse. The mouse gnaws off the ropes tying the lion to a tree after the lion had done him a good turn. “Little friends may prove great friends.” or “One good turn deserves another.”

Remember the doll, Mrs. Beasley, on Family Affair? and the horse, Mr. Ed. And how about the mule named Mr. Bascom in Earnest J. Gaines’ Just Like a Tree? Here’s the way the short story begins:

Pa hit him on the back and he jeck in them chains like he pulling, but ever’body in the wagon know he ain’t, and Pa hit him on the back again. He jeck again like he pulling, but even Big Red know he ain’t doing a thing.

“That’s why I’ go’n get a horse,” Pa say. “He’ll kill that other mule. Get up there, Mr. Bascom.”

 ************

In Alice Through the Lookingglass, by Lewis Carroll, the poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” has these lines:

“The sun was shining on the sea,

Shining with all his might:

He did his very best to make

The billows smooth and bright—

And this was odd, because it was

The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,

Because she thought the sun

Had got no business to be there

After the day was done—

‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,

‘To come and spoil the fun.’”

Here is my poem, “A Year in the Orchard” (published in Parents and Children Together Online).

A YEAR IN THE ORCHARD

by

Barbara Bockman

Spring 

I am the rain. I drop. I drop. I drop.
My waters gently flow
And help the buds to grow.
Listen to my song: Plop! Plop! Plop!

Summer

I am the sun. I shine. I shine. I shine.
I warm down to the root
And sweeten up the fruit.
When it is ripe, you may dine.

Autumn

I am the wind. I sigh. I sigh. I sigh.
The leaves are now brown.
I blow the fruit down.
Would you like to bake a pie?

Winter

I am the snow. I fall. I fall. I fall.
I am silent and bright.
I paint the trees white.
I am soft as a cotton ball.

The following poem was published on library.thinkquest.org as a project of a student for students:

SATIN DREAMS OF INDIA

By Autumn

Satin dreams of India.
Satin dreams of being
made into a beautiful sari.
A warm, Wonderful sari
Worn on an
Indian Princess.
Swaying in the wind.
Satin tell us to be soft and
gentle like her.

**************

Have you used personification in your work? Would you share it with us?

P.S.  Happy Birthday to my daughter Jenny

 

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12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. colleen rand
    May 23, 2011 @ 08:13:26

    Who would guess that you love ancient Greece?
    Hugs,
    Colleen

    Reply

  2. Nancy Stewart
    May 23, 2011 @ 08:41:19

    I love this! It was fun reading about muses and ancient Greece. When we lived in London, we were just a walk to the Hampstead Cemetary where Mary Shelley is buried. There were always people visiting her grave and, of course, many other notables. This brings back happy memories of living in leafy Hampstead. Thanks to both of you.

    Reply

  3. donnashepherd
    May 23, 2011 @ 09:23:31

    Yes, I have in several books, most notably in the Topsy Tales series. Each animal in Topsy Turvy Land has a distinct personality. I have a mischievous green monkey, a sweet, hot pink polka-dotted hippo, and a singing snake with a flair for the dramatic. I wrote out character profiles for each one. lol! Fun post!

    Donna

    Reply

  4. melangeofcultures
    May 23, 2011 @ 09:41:45

    Very informative post! Thanks, I love your poem about each season, nice use of personification.

    Nicole Weaver
    Trilingual Children’s Author
    http://mysisterismybestfriend.blogspot.com
    http://marieandherfriendtheseaturtle.blogspot.com

    Reply

  5. Priya Iyengar
    May 23, 2011 @ 11:55:25

    I absolutely loved this, Barbara. I now know why and how well you could write about Diana.

    Your poem took me through all the seasons and I enjoyed the flavors them.
    Keep it up.
    Love and Hugs

    Reply

  6. margie palatini
    May 23, 2011 @ 12:16:01

    One of my own faves — SWEET TOOTH.

    Reply

  7. Janet Ann Collins
    May 23, 2011 @ 17:10:41

    Another good post! This blog is always interesting.

    I’ve written a book that should be out later this year about a giant, talking worm.

    Reply

  8. J. Aday Kennedy
    May 23, 2011 @ 20:58:48

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY JENNY!
    Language is soooooooooo exciting. Great post.
    Blessings,
    J. Aday Kennedy
    The Differently-Abled Writer & Speaker
    Children’s Author of Stella the Fire Farting Dragon (April 2010)
    http://brainfartexplosion.blogspot.com

    Reply

  9. Barbara Bockman
    May 24, 2011 @ 00:27:24

    Colleen, I know you’re kidding me. It just occurred to me that if I ever wanted to live somewhere other than Florida (or North Carolina), it would be a Greek island–make that a private one.

    Nancy, I’ve been thinking about taking a literary tour of England. My travel agent gave me some brochures last summer, but I decided since I would be travelling with two teen-age boys, I should go to the five capital cities + to give the boys a broad taste of the British Isles. I’ll save the literary tour till later.

    Donna, I’ve had my eye on the Topsy books. I’ve been getting as many GAP books as I can (now if only I had time to read them). I’ll get to yours before long.

    Nicole, I’m glad you liked my poem; I also enjoy your blog.

    Priya, You are one swell Cheer Leader. I can’t thank you enough.

    Margie, Thank you for stopping by. Your Sweet Tooth is an excellent personified character. I took a look at your Amazon page; you have a wicked sense of humor that I envy. I was wondering how you came upon my blog. Hope you will have a chance to drop me a line.

    Jan, Your giant talking worm sounds like fun. We’ll be looking forward to meeting him.

    J. Aday, I agree that Language is sooooooooooo exciting. I once knew a librarian who read the dictionary in her spare time. I thought then it was strange, but I don’t now. But the really cool thing is to run across something written by a master that makes your heart turn over. I guess that’s why I read and my aspiration for writing.

    Thanks All

    Reply

  10. Connie Arnold
    May 24, 2011 @ 13:44:23

    Great post, Barbara. I love your poem! Happy birthday to your daughter!

    Reply

  11. Barbara Bockman
    May 24, 2011 @ 23:09:36

    Thank you, Connie. I loved writing that poem.

    I will pass your birthday greetings on to my daughter. She will be surprised.

    Reply

  12. Bill Kirk
    May 28, 2011 @ 14:49:48

    Great post, Barbara. I’ve read and re-read “A Year In The Orchard”. What terrific word play you have packed into your four-season poem. Each verse is delicious all by itself.

    And thanks for the kind nod to “Circulation Celebration.” It was fun to write and Eugene’s illustrations create a distinctive character for the heart. In some of the other books in THE SUM OF OUR PARTS series, Eugene has put a different “face” on bones and muscles and other body parts.

    As for use of personification elsewhere in my writing, sometimes it just seems to make sense as an effective way to evoke a certain visual, such as in the opening lines of “Remembering Winter”:

    Silhouetted sentries stare,
    Standing leafless, stark and bare.

    Thanks, again, for sharing your thoughts on the writing craft, Barbara. Very well done, indeed.

    Bill

    Reply

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