Academic journal article Style

Ways of Personifying

Academic journal article Style

Ways of Personifying

Article excerpt

Over the centuries, rhetoricians and critics have offered numerous definitions of personification, some inclusive, others restrictive. Since inclusive definitions tend to blur distinctions and restrictive ones to push aside problematic instances in their pursuit of clarity, I shall use this essay to construct a typology of practices that have either been bundled roughly together or forced into the cold out of a failure to acknowledge their kinship with mainstream personification. This typology will be structured by the ways in which the device mediates between the divine and the ordinary, the typical and the specific.

Quintilian's distinction between personification the trope and personification the figure, which separates a whole group of personifications better classified as metaphors, serves as a useful point from which to begin a tidying exercise: "Effects of extraordinary sublimity are produced when the theme is exalted by bold and almost hazardous metaphor and inanimate objects are given life and action" (Sonnino 54). Because tropes differ from schemes in causing semantic disruption, tropic conformatio (personification) manifests itself in a derangement and blending of categories pivotal to metaphor: hence Quintilian's stress on the boldness and hazardousness of the enterprise. But while tropic personification transfers human properties to nonhuman objects, it does not, on the whole, create the complete mental image of a person. Because a metaphoric frame encloses the transference, the imagination focuses only on the specified attributes. Tropic conformatio, in other words, has an in-built metonymy. Take the following lines from Paradise Lost: "Sky low'r'd, and muttering Thunder, some sad drops / Wept at completing of the mortal Sin" (401). At first glance we might construe the drops as tears and immediately shift to the idea of an unlocalized cosmic grief. Because the lines are out of context, "Sky" registers as the subject and tears as the object of the sentence, but we nonetheless reject the mental image of a sky with eyes: the personification cuts off when visual and other proprieties are about to be violated. If, however, we relocate the lines in Milton's poem, a different reading becomes possible:

Earth trembl'd from her entrails, as again In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan, Sky low'r'd, and muttering Thunder, some sad drops Wept at completing of the mortal Sin Original; (401)

Because no classical tradition exists for a god-sky (as opposed to a sky-god), the image of a sky personified (and eyed) is not easily entertained, and the mind automatically restricts the scope of the conformatio. We could, however, take "Nature" rather than "Sky" as the subject of "wept" and "Sky" as the object she lowers in grief before weeping at Adam's sin. Such a reading, which brings us closer to personification that projects a human figure in its entirety, could also claim the support of a well-established history of deification, as in Edmund's "Thou, Nature, art my goddess" (King Lear 24). Even so, the idea remains problematic because in this instance the sheer scale of the personification defies the imagination. Milton has personified Earth in its corporate entirety, not as a figure made manageable by human incarnation: a woman whose very bowels are commensurate with the planet's mass ("trembl'd from her entrails"). And that image, of course, leads us into the province of the sublime, of entities finally inconceivable in their vastness. Steven Knapp, taking Kant's definition of the phenomenon as his starting point, has argued that "[i]f personification knows anything at all, it knows itself, with a symmetrical purity unmatched by anything in empirical consciousness" (4). Knapp here offers a subtle view of the topic, but I am worried by the claim that a personification knows only itself, the more so because to my mind the definition applies chiefly to what Knapp calls "the semipersonified metaphors that energize Johnson's prose" (6). …

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