Personification, also known as anthropopathism, is a linguistic tool applied to represent natural powers, objects, or abstract concepts as having some features characteristic of humans. In simple words, it’s a recognition of human properties in inanimate things. This literary device depicts real or fictional objects as behaving like humans.
The word “personification” is a combination of two Latin words: “persona”, meaning “a person”, and “facio”, meaning “to do”. It is hard to tell the exact date when this concept was used first. At the lowest stages of the evolution, humans explained every action outside themselves with an action similar to the one of their own will. Thus, the first understanding of the world was based on personification, mostly of the natural phenomena, such as rain, storm, or sea. The sun, for example, was believed to be a creature that wakes up and acts on its own will.
When it goes about the ancient world, it is important to distinguish personification and mythology. The sun, again, was impersonated, but it was not believed to be a god (as Helios). Mythology, which appeared much later, is another, more complicated form of personification.
In ancient and medieval times, personification was also used in religion, tales, parables, different forms of art, and fiction. For example, the painting “Arithmetria” by Sebald Beham is a personification of arithmetic. In the Renaissance and later, personification was widely used in literature in a form we know it today. For instance, Shakespeare used personification in “Romeo and Juliet” to create a romantic atmosphere:
“The grey-ey'd morn smiles on the frowning night (…)”
The author here presents the early morning as a perfect time for love to emerge. As seen in this example, with the development of literature, personification became an irreplaceable literary device. In the ancient times, it was used to explain things people could not. Later on, it was used to bring inanimate things to life in order to both describe them and make the description literary beautiful.
Personification is often confused with allegory. While the first one is used locally and can be found in a single sentence, the second one is used in an artistic language and is understandable only in the context of the whole literary piece.
The personification used in tales and myths differs from the one used in fiction literature. In a tale, this figure of speech is very similar to allegory. When a wolf is described as an evil animal in the "Little Red Riding Hood", it is personified as a cunning and insidious creature.
The phrase “opportunity is knocking at the door” is a personification as well. However, this is a metaphorical example, which is why personification is often confused with metaphor too.
Actually, in some literary pieces, it is really hard to distinguish a personification from a metaphor. Yet, personification is a widely used literary device that helps the writer describe a thing in an easily understandable manner. The point here is in the human psychology of associations. It is known that the easiest way to perceive information for a human being is to make an association. Thus, when the reader can draw a connection between their own characteristics and the characteristics of a certain idea or thing, it gets easier to understand that idea or thing. Writers and artists manipulate this feature to provoke the feelings they want the reader to feel.
“Time creeps up on you.” In this example, time is described as being able to do some physical action, which is typical of animate entities only. It affects the reader with a powerful psychological impact, making them feel the irreversibility of the time flow. As seen in this example, personification is often employed with help of verbs.
When saying “the moon smiles”, the writer applies personification to describe the scenery, not to explain an object - the moon - better. This literary device helps writers create a special atmosphere or set the desired scenery.
This linguistic tool is prevalent in poetry, as poets use it to make their works more melodic and appealing to the imagination. Thus, “the wind” can be described as “whispering”, “the shadows” - as “dancing”, and “the sun” - as “peeping through clouds”. When personified, different objects, natural phenomena, and abstract concepts seem more interesting and literary appealing to the reader.
Personification is one of the literary devices that have been in use since ancient times. First, to describe the unknown, and later, to make a text brighter, this literary device was applied in different forms of art and various genres of literature. Thus, concepts, objects, phenomena, and other inanimate things were given the human qualities, which allowed writers to make their works more interesting and easier to understand.
Personification can make a strong psychological influence on a person. Using this figure of speech, a writer or an artist can provoke one’s feelings in order to enhance the main idea of the work. Nevertheless, personification should be carefully distinguished from metaphors and allegories.