In study guide 5.3, we’ll continue the theme of literary techniques begun in the previous guide. This time, we’ll be focusing on comparisons such as personification and allusion.
First, let’s understand what personification is. Here’s the College Board definition, which we will use to start off our understanding:
“Personification is a type of comparison that assigns a human trait or quality to a nonhuman object, entity, or idea, thus characterizing that object, entity, or idea.” (AP Lit CED 2020)
It is often used in poetry to give inanimate objects or concepts a sense of life or humanity, making them more relatable or powerful to the reader. For example, in William Wordsworth's poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,"
the daffodils are personified as "fluttering" and "dancing." This helps to convey the joy and beauty of the flowers, and creates a more vivid image in the reader's mind.
Personification can also be used to give a voice to otherwise silent objects or concepts, such as in Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death,"
where Death is personified as a kind gentleman who comes to take the speaker on a ride.
Here are some ways personification influences reader perception of poems:
Creates a more vivid and relatable image: By giving human characteristics to nonhuman objects or concepts, personification can create a more vivid image in the reader's mind, making the poem more engaging and memorable.
Adds emotional weight: Personification can add emotional weight to the poem by giving human emotions to non-human objects or concepts. This can help to create a sense of empathy or connection with the reader.
Adds layers of meaning: Personification can add layers of meaning to the poem by giving human characteristics to non-human elements, making it possible to explore complex ideas and emotions.
Helps to convey symbolism or metaphor: Personification can be used to convey symbolism or metaphor, giving non-human elements a deeper meaning.
Enriches the poem’s imagination and creativity: Personification can give life to the inanimate and abstract, making the poem more imaginative and creative, encouraging readers to expand their imagination and interpretation of the poem.
Read the poem “Mirror”
by Sylvia Plath. Identify the personification Plath uses, and why she chose to do so.
An allusion in poetry is a reference to a well-known historical or literary event, person, place, or work. This can include myths, sacred texts, works of art, etc. Allusions can be used to add depth and meaning to the poem, and to create connections between the poem and other works or experiences. An allusion can also be a way for a poet to make a comparison or a metaphor without directly stating it.
Here is an example of a poem that alludes to the Greek myth of Icarus:
"Wings of Wax"
With wings of wax, I soared so high,
Above the clouds, into the sky,
I felt the warmth of the sun's embrace,
And dreamed of a boundless space.
But as I flew, my heart grew bold,
And I forgot the tale I'd been told,
Of Icarus, who flew too near,
And melted wings that brought him here.
Allusions to other works in poetry can have several impacts, such as:
Creating a sense of literary tradition: Allusions can create a sense of connection between a poem and the works that came before it. This can give the poem a sense of history and place it within a literary tradition.
Creating a sense of irony or satire: By alluding to well-known works, poems can create a sense of irony or satire by highlighting the contrast between the allusion and the poem's content.
Creating a sense of literary puzzle: Allusions can make the poem more challenging and intriguing for the readers, who may enjoy identifying and interpreting the allusions.
Creating a sense of shared culture: Allusions can make the poem more accessible by creating a sense of shared culture between the poet and the reader. The reader will feel more connected to the poet and will have a deeper appreciation of the poem.
Read the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”
by Robert Frost. Click on the hyperlink or just read it below (it’s pretty short!).
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
What does the poem allude to? Why does Frost include this allusion?
Personification is when a poet gives human qualities to non-human things like objects or concepts. It's used to make the poem more relatable and powerful for the reader. It can make an image more vivid, add emotions, add extra meaning, and convey symbolism or metaphor. Allusion is when a poet references something well-known, like a historical event or literary work, in their poem. It's used to make the poem more interesting and make connections with other works or experiences. It can also be used as a way to make a comparison or metaphor without directly saying it.
The mirror is personified in “Mirror.” The mirror is given human characteristics, such as the ability to think, speak, and make judgments. The impact of personifying the mirror in this poem is that it adds a sense of objectivity and detachment to the speaker's thoughts and feelings. The mirror is not swayed by emotions like love or dislike, but simply reflects what it sees. This adds a sense of detachment to the speaker's thoughts and feelings, and helps to convey the idea that the speaker's self-perception is distorted and unreliable. The personification of the mirror in this poem also adds a sense of tension and conflict between the speaker and the mirror. The mirror is described as "unmisted" by love or dislike," while the speaker is described as "searching" and "seeking." This creates a sense of tension and conflict between the speaker and the mirror, which reflects the speaker's inner turmoil and self-doubt.
The poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” alludes to the Garden of Eden, the biblical paradise where Adam and Eve lived before they were expelled for their disobedience to God. The allusion serves to create a metaphor for the idea that all good things come to an end and that nature is constantly changing. The garden of Eden represents the idea of perfection, a state of pure and unspoiled beauty that is fleeting and cannot be sustained. The poem's imagery of nature's cycles, the "leaf subsides to leaf" and "nothing gold can stay," is a reminder that beauty is impermanent and that all things must inevitably pass away.