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The function of personification in literature is to give a concept or object human features, usually to describe its qualities or to make a statement about human behavior. Personification is the term for assigning human qualities to non-human entities, sometimes also called anthropomorphism. It is often used in poetry, prose, and song lyrics, as well as in everyday speech. Personification in literature is often a form of metaphor, a method of describing something by comparing it to something more familiar. Emotions, abstract concepts, and natural forces have all been given human characteristics in myth and literature.
The use of personification in literature includes some of the earliest surviving literary works. The fables of Aesop, dating to at least 400 B.C., were famous for giving human motives and failings to animals and natural forces such as the wind and the sun. Ancient cultures often regarded natural forces in similar fashion, and this carried over into, for example, myths and legends of the Greek gods. The Greek writer Homer turned this belief into a literary device, employing personification in his epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey. The latter poem opens with a prayer to the Muses; these Greek goddesses were the personifications of art forms such as poetry and dance.
Writers sometimes use personification in literature to express an idea. In his 19th-century poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats briefly compares the urn of the title to a human historian. He does not maintain this metaphor in other lines of the poem; it is just a way to convey how the urn brings the knowledge and art of antiquity into modern times. In other verses, Keats compares the urn to a child and a virgin bride. He uses these descriptions because readers of his time would associate them with innocence and unspoiled beauty, qualities he wishes to assign to the Grecian vase.
The 20th-century poem “Rhapsody on a Winter Night” by T.S. Eliot is perhaps one of the best-known examples of personification in literature. Eliot assigns human qualities to a street lamp, which then narrates the rest of the poem. The lamp describes the moon overhead as an old woman, alone in the night with her fading memory and a few treasured objects. In the 1980s, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted the poem into the hit song “Memory” from his musical Cats, introducing a new generation to Eliot’s words.
Modern writers continue to use personification in literature, sometimes in unusual ways. In his 1990 novel Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins provides human personalities and desires to a group of inanimate objects, including a spoon and a can of beans. Aside from being a classic example of Robbins’ quirky style, the trick allows Robbins to comment on human activity from the viewpoint of non-human objects. In the same decade, Neil Gaiman’s comic book The Sandman personified abstract human experiences, such as desire and madness, into central characters. The title character was the personification of human dreaming.