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The bestowing sensibility and voluntary motion upon things inanimate, is so bold a figure, as to require, one should imagine, very peculiar circumstances for operating the delusion: and yet, in the language of poetry, we find a variety of expressions, which, though commonly reduced to that figure, are used without ceremony, or any sort of preparation: as, for example, thirsty ground, hungry church-yard, furious dart, angry ocean. These epithets, in their proper meaning, are attributes of sensible beings. What is their meaning when applied to things inanimate? Do they make us conceive the ground, the church-yard, the dart, the ocean, to be endued with animal functions? This is a curious inquiry; and whether so or not, it cannot be declined in handling the present subject.
The mind, agitated by certain passions, is prone to bestow sensibility upon things inanimate. This is an additional instance of the influence of passion upon our opinions and belief. I give examples: Antony, mourning over the body of Cæsar, murdered in the senate-house, vents his passion in the following words:
Antony. O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
JULIUS CESAR.-ACT III. Sc. 1.
Here Antony must have been impressed with a notion that the body of Cæsar was listening to him, without which the speech would be foolish and absurd. Nor will it appear strange, considering what is said in the chapter above cited, that passion should have such power over the mind of man.
Plaintive passions are extremely solicitous for vent; and a soliloquy commonly answers the purpose: but when such a passion becomes excessive, it cannot be gratified but by sympathy from others; and if denied that consolation in a natural way, it will convert even
things inanimate into sympathizing beings. Thus, Philoctetes complains to the rocks and promontories of the isle of Lemnos;* and Alcestes, dying, invokes the sun, the light of day, the clouds, the earth, her husband's palace, &c.† Moschus, lamenting the death of Bion, conceives that the birds, the fountains, the trees, lament with him.
That such personification is derived from nature, will not admit the least remaining doubt, after finding it in poems of the darkest ages and remotest countries. No figure is more frequent in Ossian's works; for example:
The battle is over, said the king, and I behold the blood of my friends. Sad is the heath of Lena, and mournful the oaks of Cromla.
The sword of Gaul trembles at his side, and longs to glitter in
King Richard, having got intelligence of Bolingbroke's invasion, says, upon landing in England from his Irish expedition, in a mixture of joy and resentment
I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs.
Plays fondly with her tears, and smiles in meeting;
*Philoctetes of Sophocles, Act 4. Sc. 2.
Prove armed soldiers, ere her native king
After a long voyage, it was customary among the ancients to salute the natal soil. A long voyage being of old a greater enterprise than at present, the safe return to one's country, after much fatigue and danger, was a delightful circumstance; and it was natural to give the natal soil a temporary life, in order to sympathize with the traveller. See an example, Agamemnon of Eschylus, Act 3, in the beginning. Regret for leaving a place one has been accustomed to, has the same effect.*
Terror produces the same effect; it is communicated in thought to every thing around, even to things inanimate:
As when old Ocean roars,
And heaves huge surges to the trembling shores.
ILIAD, ii. 249.
Go, view the settling sea. The stormy wind is laid; but the billows still tremble on the deep, and seem to fear the blast.
A man also naturally communicates his joy to all objects around, animate or inanimate:
As when to them who sail
Beyond the Cape of Hope, and now are past
Well pleas'd, they slack their course, and many a league,
PARADISE LOST.-BOOK IV.
I have been profuse of examples, to show what power many passions have to animate their objects. In all the foregoing examples, the personification, if I mistake not, is so complete as to afford conviction, momentary indeed, of life and intelligence. But it is evident, from numberless instances, that personification is not always so complete: it is a common figure in descrip
* Philoctetes of Sophocles, at the close.
tive poetry, understood to be the language of the writer, and not of the persons he describes: in this case, it seldom or never comes up to conviction, even momentary, of life and intelligence. I give the following examples:
First in his east the glorious lamp was seen,
His longitude through heaven's high road: the gray
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund Day
ROMEO AND JULIET.-ACT 3. Sc. 7.
But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
It may, I presume, be taken for granted, that in the foregoing instances, the personification, either with the poet or his reader, amounts not to a conviction of intelligence; that the sun, the moon, the day, the morn, are not here understood to be sensible beings. What then is the nature of this personification? I think it must be referred to the imagination. The inanimate object is imagined to be a sensible being, but without any conviction, even for a moment, that it really is so. Ideas, or fictions of imagination, have power to raise emotions in the mind; and when any thing inanimate is, in imagination, supposed to be a sensible being, it makes, by that means, a greater figure than when an idea is formed of it according to truth. This sort of personification, however, is far inferior to the other in
*The chastity of the English language, which in common usage distinguishes by genders no words but what signify beings male and female, gives thus a fine opportunity for the prosopopœia; a beauty unknown in other languages, where every word is masculine or feminine.
elevation. Thus personification is of two kinds. The first, being more noble, may be termed passionate personification: the other, more humble, descriptive personification; because seldom or never is personification in a description carried to conviction.
The imagination is so lively and active, that its images are raised with very little effort; and this justifies the frequent use of descriptive personification. This figure abounds in Milton's Allegro and Penseroso.
Abstract and general terms, as well as particular objects, are often necessary in poetry. Such terms, however, are not well adapted to poetry, because they suggest not any image. I can readily form an image of Alexander or Achilles in wrath; but I cannot form an image of wrath in the abstract, or of wrath independent of a person. Upon that account, in works addressed to the imagination, abstract terms are frequently personified; but such personification rests upon imagination merely, not upon conviction.
Thus, to explain the effects of slander, it is imagined to be a voluntary agent.
No, 'tis Slander;
Whose edge is sharper than the sword; whose tongue
SHAKSPEARE.-CYMBELINE, ACT III. Sc. 4.
As also human passions. Take the following example:
For Pleasure and Revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders, to the voice
TROILUS AND CRESSIDA.-ACT II. Sc. 4.
Virgil explains fame and its effects by a still greater variety of action.* And Shakspeare personifies death and its operations in a manner singularly fanciful.
Within the hollow crown
* Æneid, iv. 173.