Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.
What Is Personification?
Personification is a device used in prose and poetry that gives human characteristics or abilities to a thing, an animal, or an idea. You're probably familiar with personification from children's books that use talking animals instead of people to portray difficult situations or ideas to young readers. It's a small step from children's books to the broader use of this literary device. For this lesson, we will look at examples of personification in Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem The Raven.
Poe's poem takes place in the narrator's study as he is reading late at night. He tells us that it is December, and there is a dying fire in the fireplace. The first instance of personification is in stanza 2 when the narrator describes the embers in the fire as projecting their ghosts upon the floor. Of course, embers are inanimate. They do not have souls, so they cannot have ghosts. But this is the literal view of the words' meanings. As you've probably experienced with poetry, words and images are often used differently to give an impression or evoke a subtle emotion rather than a literal message. The statement about the fire and its ghosts, then, is used to set up the spooky, dark atmosphere of this sorrowful poem about despair and lost love.
Like the embers, the curtains hanging in the narrator's study are not sentient (consciously aware) beings with feelings or the ability to act on their own. If the curtains in a room move and make a rustling sound, there's wind moving them, or a person's hand. Yet Poe assigns sadness and uncertainty to the rustling of the purple curtains. Again, the atmosphere is further steeped in the sadness and uncertainty for the future that the poet is expressing in this scene.
The Lamplight Shadow
Skipping ahead to the end of the poem, as the ominous raven still sits above the narrator's door, Poe tells us that 'the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor'. It sounds here as if the lamp takes on human ability to act on its own and literally 'throw' the darkness of the bird's shadow image on the study floor. Then, in the last two lines, Poe goes further with personification as he describes the narrator's own soul 'in' the shadow, where it floats upon the floor. The very last line of this sad poem tells the reader that the narrator expects his soul in the shadowy state to remain under the curse of the raven for the rest of his life.
Of course, the most important instance of personification in the poem is the treatment of the raven itself. Poe attributes not only speech but intention and emotions to the symbolic bird. The grief-stricken narrator of the poem, mourning his lost love Lenore, can find no relief once the evil bird has settled himself on the statue over the door.
The narrator is unnerved even before the raven arrives. Earlier he was frightened by mysterious knocking on his door. When he first opens it, there is no one there. You can imagine how spooky this would be! Then, the narrator even thinks, in stanza 5, that the darkness whispers the name of his lost Lenore.
The narrator tries to convince himself that it is only the wind he hears and goes to the window; that is when the frightening raven enters and takes up his post over the door. Thus far, the bird has not done anything unusual that a wild bird might not do. Then, in stanza 8, the bird first utters the ominous word 'nevermore'. Now both the narrator and the reader know that the bird can speak: a clear example of personification. Even though a large raven in one's dark room at midnight might be a bit unsettling, it is nothing to the fear created when the bird talks!
The narrator then tries to tell himself that the bird learned to say that one specific word by hearing it spoken by a human master. If this were the case, the word would have no real meaning for the bird - and we would not have a true example of personification. But as the poem continues, we see that the word 'nevermore' seems to fit exactly the thoughts of the sad poet. He will see his love nevermore, and be happy nevermore. And, as we have seen from looking at the final stanza, the poor man's soul will nevermore arise from the shadowy state of limbo lying on the study floor.
Poe's The Raven is an excellent example of how the literary device of personification can add to the atmosphere and tone of a work of fiction. By giving human characteristics to the raven, the fire, the lamplight, and the curtains, the reader feels more strongly the narrator's state of loss and despair.
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