to describe something by giving it human or living qualities; from the Greek prosopopoeia, meaning 'to make person'
Time waits for no one.
Justice is blind and, at times, deaf.
The avalanche swallowed all before it.
He was keeping the conversation alive.
The night surrendered to dawn's assault.
The world cares little for human suffering.
The old house looked tired and melancholic.
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
It was one of those heavy, sultry afternoons when nature seems to be saying to itself, "Now, shall I, or shall I not, scare the pants off these people with a hell of a thunderstorm?"
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth.
And Melancholy marked him for her own.
Personification enlivens prose by ascribing human and other animal characteristics to abstractions. In A Damsel in Distress, P.G. Wodehouse describes the sun and the wind as puppies, confidence tricksters and robbers.
Personify things to bring them to life, to make them vivid and to appeal to emotions.
The Living World
Personification is common in literature and everyday discourse. We can simplify and vivify abstractions and complexities by personifying them. Compare:
a very strong cup of coffee →
The moon was barely visible behind the grey clouds. →
a coffee that could awaken the dead
The tranquil moon slept softly beneath a blanket of caressing clouds.
Some personifications are so common we barely notice them.
The sun smiles.
The stars dance.
The wind blows and howls.
The ground thirsts for rain.
The moon winks.
Storms are angry.
Oceans are tranquil.
Nature is seldom kind.
The earth smiles with plenty.
Death waits for us.
She was a great ship.
Time marches ever onwards.
Jealousy is a green-eyed monster.
Personification in Literature
Literature contains much personification. Below, Eliot personifies the fog and smoke of a wintry night in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Hardy combines personification and metaphor to describe Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each advanced halfway.
The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen. Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis—the final overthrow.
Apostrophe Personification in Literature
A particularly literary kind of personification is apostrophe: a pathos appeal addressing an absent person or personified abstraction.
King James Bible
O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so
Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?
Come, let me clutch thee!
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still
Fresher figures of speech are always better. Avoid commonplace personifications. Ask yourself: 'What images and senses am I trying to create?' Then try to personify vividly. See also synesthesia.
Money doesn't talk; it swears.
When the axe came into the forest, the trees all said, 'Well, at least the handle is one of us.'
The East Wind explored his system with chilly fingers.
The figure had been unrecognizable except to the eye of intuition.
Unseen, in the background, Fate was quietly slipping the lead into the boxing glove.
The hour was nearly one, and the Chateau Blissac had put the cat out and tucked itself in at about eleven-thirty.
He had fallen out of the habit of being magnanimous during the past few years, for dyspepsia brooks no divided allegiance and magnanimity has to take a back seat when it has a grip on a man.
Although the hands of the station clock pointed to several minutes past nine, it was still apparently early evening when the train drew up at the platform of Market Blandings and discharged its distinguished passengers. The sun, taken in as usual by the never-failing practical joke of the Daylight Saving Act, had only just set, and a golden afterglow lingered on the fields as the car which had met the train purred over the two miles of country road that separated the little town from the castle.