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Personification

1. What is it?

Personification is the giving of human qualities to non-human things.

It frequently occurs in poetry, children’s literature, literature, and marketing.

Note: personification differs from anthropomorphism. Personification gives abstract human qualities to non-humans (e.g. a proud flag).
Anthropomorphism gives human personalities to non-humans (e.g. a speaking cartoon dog).

2. Why use it?

Give objects the feeling of life, to highlight their importance or elicit emotion towards them.Add deep or unusual descriptions to objects.
Make an object a character in a storyline.

3. Examples

The room fell silent against the fire’s roar, as if it knew of the fate that awaited it from the angry flames. When combustion is in such a mood there are none that can dissuade it from its desire for destruction.


Upon entering the room he had thrown the bag on the floor, where it had remained lazily. Yet, as the days passed and he had not returned to move it again, the hold-all had grown feeble and bored, a cantankerous leftover object from a time of forgotten education and art.

4. Examples in literature

Ode to a Grecian Urn
by John Keats

Know Your Book

Title: Ode to a Grecian Urn
Author: John Keats (1795-1821)
Published: 1819
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; Romanticism; ode
Synopsis: The poet reflects on images painted on a Grecian urn, and how art lasts throughout time. He also considers how art must have an audience, and how that audience will interpret the permanent pictures in a way that is separate from the artist’s intention or reality. Art and its beauty, therefore, are eternal and independent.

Excerpt, Stanzas 1 and 2:

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:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension

1. Which lines tells you that Keats believes his poetic words cannot match the majesty of the urn?
2. When Keats says the urn has a song (‘thy song’), to what is he referring?
3. Why does Keats say ‘she cannot fade’? 
Identifying Techniques

4. How is the urn personified by the poet? Why does Keats do this?
5. In the first stanza, Keats hints at the images on the urn through a series of questions. What effect does using questions have in this case?
6. The rhyme structures in the two given stanzas are not the same. What are the rhyme structures?  
Text Analysis

7. What contrast exists between the thinking in the first stanza and the second? What technique tells the reader there has been a change?
8. The poet is having a conversation with the urn. What is the contrast between the two sides’ input into this conversation?
9. Sound is an important theme in this poem. Why is this? Underline the words that relate to sound.
10. How is time, and both the poet’s and urn’s relationship with it, tackled in the poem? 
Provoking Opinion

11. Are there any phrases or elements of the poem you enjoyed? Why?
12. Do you believe that artefacts have, or tell, a story? Or are they simply objects?
13. The first two lines of the second stanza in Keats’s poem have become famous, while many people do not know the rest of the poem. Can you think of any other examples of a single line becoming more famous than the work from which it comes?
14. Keats’s work uses forms of ‘you’ no longer in common use: ‘thou’, and ‘ye’. Do you feel that ‘old’ language helps a poem? Does it change the tone and how you read it?

Erewhon
by Samuel Butler

Know Your Book

Title: Erewhon: or, Over the Range
Author: Samuel Butler (1835-1902)
Published: 1872
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; satire
Plot: Higgs arrives in the country of Erewhon, which initially appears to be a Utopia in how it treats money, crime and machines. However, as more is revealed about the nation’s rules, it is seen as slightly absurd. Consequently, Higgs’s belief in Utopia withers. The book satirises Victorian thought, with the fact that many names in Erewhon are backwards or anagrams hinting that it is a society off kilter.
Setting: Fictional country of Erewhon
Characters: Higgs; Yram; Arowhena; Senoj Nosnibor; Chowbok

Excerpt from Chapter 23 ’The Book of the Machines’:

Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead. He knows perfectly well what he wants and how to get it. He sees the light coming from the cellar window and sends his shoots crawling straight thereto: they will crawl along the floor and up the wall and out at the cellar window; if there be a little earth anywhere on the journey he will find it and use it for his own ends. What deliberation he may exercise in the matter of his roots when he is planted in the earth is a thing unknown to us, but we can imagine him saying, ‘I will have a tuber here and a tuber there, and I will suck whatsoever advantage I can from all my surroundings. This neighbour I will overshadow, and that I will undermine; and what I can do shall be the limit of what I will do. He that is stronger and better placed than I shall overcome me, and him that is weaker I will overcome.’

1. The description of the potato uses

a) a rhetorical question
b) sarcasm
c) hyperbole
d) similes
e) personification

Answer
e
2. ‘A certain low cunning’ suggests potatoes are

a) clever and successful
b) completely different from people
c) motivated by stupid ideas
d) unintelligent yet self-serving
e) mysterious in actions

Answer
d
3. The final line describes a conflict at the heart of

a) morality
b) the law of the jungle
c) friendship
d) Christianity
e) farming

Answer
b
4. The moral of this passage could be

a) ‘all life is selfish’
b) ‘forgiveness is godly’
c) ‘love will conquer all’
d) ‘human intelligence rules all others’
e) ‘there is always something stronger than you’

Answer
a
5. The contrast between the personification of Keats’s urn and Butler’s potato could be noted as showing

a) positive and negative human traits
b) the hypocrisy of nature
c) the frailty of human life
d) the human mind versus the human body
e) art as a necessary part of a good life

Answer
a

5. Tasks

Task 1: Create an example of personification to describe the manner of some objects in the room.
Task 2: Write a poem or short scene in which personification is a key component.

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