Anthropomorphism, Personification, Apostrophe

In general, if you look up either the term “anthropomorphism” or “personification” you will be told that they are basically synonymous. Both terms have to do with an attempt to map human thoughts, characteristics, agency, motivations, or emotions onto inanimate (or animate but inhuman) objects, concepts, or animals. Earlier in literary history we would have distinguished between a text that sustains this human-to-inhuman mapping for a longer duration, like one of Aesop’s fables (cf “The Ant and the Grasshopper”) or Richard Adams’s Watership Down, or most Disney or Pixar movies (Finding Nemo, for example), as anthropomorphic.

We would save “personification” for a relatively brief association of human characteristics with the inhuman (still objects, concepts, or animals): “the icy fingers of a chill wind,” you might say, without giving the wind a name (“Charlie”) and without making him not only male but the main character of a narrative or something. I don’t know if this is obvious, but one reason why literary instructors are moving away from this (I think useful) distinction is that “personification” is much more gender-inclusive; “anthropomorphism” is literally “changed into man,” which isn’t very nice to women. No such problem with personification as a term, so I accept either one even though I continue to use anthropomorphism (with that caveat) for the sake of scalar disambiguation.

Apostrophe (from the Greek for “turning away”), meanwhile, is a rhetorical figure of speech by which the speaker of a poem stops and conspicuously addresses something, whether alive or dead, person or object or concept. In other words, it can, but doesn’t have to, include personification. Usually apostrophe begins with an “O,” as Shelley does at the beginning of “Ode to the West Wind”: “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being…” Sometimes it doesn’t, though: John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud” begins “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful…”which is both an apostrophe and personification. The point is that the speaker conspicuously addresses someone within the poem, which is simultaneously an attempt to create some sort of adversarial dialogue (since the object of the apostrophe rarely answers back), and an opportunity to depict the act of apostrophe itself, since it’s self-conscious and therefore self-reflexive. More on self-reflexivity in two weeks!

Anyway, the poems we read for our personification cluster are all about animals (for consistency). They are attempts by poets to either depict the encounter between a human being’s subjectivity with an animal’s, puzzling out what it must be like to be a snake or a sandpiper or a blackbird or a bird or a fish or an ostrich, or to actually inhabit that animal’s anthropomorphized perspective and speak as an animal. And I just want to leave you with a few options for what the motivation might be to depict animals with human qualities.

1.)    To use animals as a convenient foil for questioning or exploring human motivations. This is certainly Aesop’s motive in most of his fables, and fables in general are about teaching children moral lessons, so that makes sense. In this case, you defer the human problem to animals, who are sometimes cartoonish or absurd, to illustrate a point that might strike too close to home if the story had human characters instead.

2.)    To illustrate the limits of human comprehension or understanding. Most of our speakers for this week are trying, but often failing, to understand the vital differences between animals and human beings. Coming to grips with what can’t be known is another way of pointing toward what can’t be put into language anyway, and constitutes a worthy challenge for a poet.

3.)    (related) To imagine what life looks life when we are someone else. For personified poems like these, even though the poets are projecting themselves into animals, they’re still animals with human characteristics. So it may be the end of the self (of the speaker) that they’re contemplating, but it’s not the end of humanity that is being glimpsed.



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