What is personification?

Statue of Liberty. David Paul Ohmer photo

The Statue of Liberty is a visual personification of the United States. David Paul Ohmer photo. CC-BY.

Personification is a literary device or figure of speech in which objects or abstract ideas are given human characteristics such as abilities or feelings. Although personification is very common in literature and poetry, it also is used in everyday speech.

Here are some examples of personification in poetry and literature:

  • William Shakespeare, Sonnet IX: “The world will be thy widow and still weep / That thou no form of thee hast left behind. (The world here is given the ability to be a widow and to weep.)
  • Emma Lazarus in The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This poem is written in the first person, with the speaker personifying a country, the United States.
  • John Donne: “Death be not proud.” (Death here is given the human attribute of pride.)
  • Paul of Tarsus: “Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (Love, an abstract concept, is given numerous human attributes and abilities. Translation from the World English Bible.)
  • Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “And [children], most recently of nature’s mold, sense that they have only narrowly missed being another of her jokes.” (Nature here is given the ability to make jokes.)

In everyday speech, we often give human emotions or desires to inanimate objects: “My computer doesn’t like me.” “This car always wants to go over the speed limit.” “It was a punishing wind.” Personification also occurs when we give inanimate objects human names or refer to them as a he or she.

Personification can be thought of as a type of metaphor, a literary device in which a person or thing is said to be something that it literally is not.

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1 Comment

  • Daniel says:

    re: photo caption

    “The Statue of Liberty is a visual personification of the United States.”

    No, the statue “Liberty Enlightening the World” is a personification of the abstract concept of liberty or freedom. It is not, and never has been, a personification of the United States of America. That would be “Uncle Sam”.

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