What is personification?
Personification is the endowment of inanimate objects or abstract concepts with animate or living qualities.
Caution is recommended to not over-endow an object or concept with living qualities. It can quickly turn unrealistic, or comic if not careful.
When this happens, your listener starts to question the reliability of the speaker and if the doubt is reinforced with other poor observations or figurative language that is not in the realm of possibility, your listener is out.
If personification is such a big risk, why use it at all?
Like all figurative language, it is meant to appeal to the senses and help add a connection and larger meaning to the line for the listener.
By using the four primary types of figurative language: allusion, metaphor, simile and personification, to create strong imagery, the writer makes a direct connection with the listener’s memories and feelings.
And, it’s great at providing strong imagery for a song. Let’s look at a few.
Tim McGraw/Taylor Swift “Highway Don’t Care”: . . . highway don’t care . . .
Songwriters: Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, Brad Warren & Brett Warren
The highway won’t hold you tonight
The highway don’t know you’re alive
The highway don’t care if you’re all alone
But I do, I do.
The highway won’t dry your tears
The highway don’t need you here
The highway don’t care if you’re coming home
But I do, I do.
What I like about this song is: whole song title is personification!
What makes the personification work so well in this song is that the first two lines are true statements. They’re facts. By the time you get to the third line and highway not caring that a person is alone, the facts have already substantiated it as a fact.
Your takeaway as a listener is that the highway is a cold and lonely place, i.e., nothing good in comparison to the person who waits for the “you” at home.
Great use of personification!
Green Day “Good Riddance”: Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
Songwriter: Billie Joe Armstrong
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road.
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go.
So make the best of this test and don’t ask why.
It’s not a question but a lesson learned in time.
I like this verse for several figurative language reasons.
“Time grabs you by the wrist” is pretty literal: you wear a watch is on your wrist, and you look there to guide what you do in a day. Time also tends to rule our lives, so it does “direct” you at times.
Since the whole first verse harkens back to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”, the use of time works well. The poem is about regret, so a nice bit of allusion. The song uses time as a path to a lesson.
Now, had the phrase “Time took me by the nose” been chosen, it probably wouldn’t have been nearly as strong, especially given the recurrence of the word “time” at the end of the verse. And would have been bordering on being a bit over the top.
Sting “Fields Of Gold”: . . . the sun in his jealous sky . .
You remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in fields of gold
So she took her love for to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold
Will you stay with me, will you be my love?
Among the fields of barley
We’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in fields of gold
How can the sun be in a jealous sky? What the heck is a jealous sky? On it’s own, the personification here seems awkward at best, verging on nonsense. However, in context, it works.
Why? Because the rest of the song stays grounded in clear, distinct detail and does not use other forms of figurative language to convey the scene.
So, even if as a listener I’m untrusting of the first use of the phrase, the rest of the song’s imagery retains my trust. I’m willing to suspend dismissing it and instead, focus on the detail. This serves to give the phrase meaning as I come to understand this is a love song, and the sun, while seeing all of it, has none of it – “jealous sky.”
Pretty great writing that not only is poetic, but retains the listener!
The biggest danger of all figurative language is outrageous, unfair or comic comparisons.
Once a comparison is unreasonable or laughable in the ears of your listener, there is no winning them back.
There’s just no time left, and worse, they could just stay stuck on the poor figurative language and not hear the rest of the song.
So let’s go back to the highway for an example of what not to do.
Fictitious Song Lyric: “the highway sign laughed at me as I sped by”
It’s hard to believe a highway sign is smiling at you, never mind breaking into laughter. At this point, it turns into a cartoon-like situation because you do think of an image. Sort of a Saturday morning cartoon image.
That’s where other figurative language comes in. What if there’s a gash in the middle and that’s why you’re thinking it looks like it’s laughing? In this case, you’ve just chosen the wrong figurative language device.
In the example above, your personification issue could be solved by simply going with a simile “the highway sign’s rusty gash looked like it was laughing at me . . .”
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