By The Landlord
“Time, he’s waiting in the wings. He speaks of senseless things. His script is you and me, boys.” – David Bowie
“I look at you all see, the love there that's sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps.” – The Beatles
“Hello darkness, my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again.” – Paul Simon
“Yellow moon, yellow moon, why you keep peeping in my window? Do you know something I don't know? Did you see my baby walking down the railroad tracks? You can tell me if the girl’s ever coming back.” – Neville Brothers
This morning I was touched by winter's icy fingers, felt the bite of the cold air and heard the whisper of the wind. I longed to be kissed by the sun. Flowers, twigs, leaves and indeed plastic bags danced in the breeze. As I got up, I wondered why beds and tables have legs, not supports, and why chairs also have arms. In the morning rush, time and tide waited not for me, nor anyone. It would not let me ponder. It was hurrying on, but if it is so remorseless, why does a clock have a face?
Personification is everywhere, in our language, our nature, our psychology, our existence. It is a dominant way of seeing the world, of expressing ourselves. Personification is defined as giving human characteristics to non-human things, whether that be inanimate objects, the weather, time, physical states, even ideas. It happens in everyday language, literature of all kinds, and was used as a rhetorical device, known in the classical world as prosopopoeia, from the Greek word for face. “Amor vincit omnia, et nos cedamus amori. Love conquers all. Let Love then smile at our defeat.” wrote Virgil in the The Eclogues. And we’ve been at it ever since, including, as is our focus this week, in the lyrics of songs.
There is a distinction between personification and anthropomorphism, although there are overlaps. While the former is giving human-like traits, such as speaking, crying, or dreaming, the latter is the process of turning the non-human into complete human characters, such as Thomas the Tank Engine and friends, or the farmyard creatures in George Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm. I’m sure some anthropomorphism will come up in song suggestions, but let’s try to keep to personification.
I’ve listed to few examples above on very well known songs, all have which have been previously chosen for other topics, and I’d grateful to this week’s guru, Uncleben, for his consultation on this. What’s the most likely form of personification? “I like to walk in the woods and see what Mother Nature is wearing,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. Naturalistic examples are very common. Humanising the moon, the elements, and other landscape features are great sources of inspiration for songwriters. Jimi Hendrix sings in The Wind Cries Mary: “Will the wind ever remember the names it has blown in the past? And with its crutch, its old age and its wisdom, it whispers ‘no, this will be the last’.”
In Thank You, Led Zeppelin insist on love even “if sun refused to shine”. The Ink Spots talk to the Whispering Grass. Johnny Cash’s Big River is a huge force of personification: “Now I taught the weeping willow how to cry. And I showed the clouds how to cover up a clear blue sky. And the tears that I cried for that woman are gonna flood you, Big River. Then I’m gonna sit right here until I die.”
The great lyricists litter their work with it, no doubt inspired by poets and writers before them. “The earth hath swallowed all my hopes,” wrote Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, which emphasises despair by magnitude and a compelling image of a yawning, planet-sized bottomless cavern. In turn here’s the Byrds, with Hungry Planet, personifying it with a political perspective: “I'm a hungry planet, I had a youthful face. They were in a hurry to take a lot of space. They needed bombs and tungsten, ore and iron. So they climbed right down in and blew a lot of me right through.”
Charles Dickens personifies in his paragraphs to extensive levels. In A Tale of Two Cities, he takes a human experience as an external entity, then personifies it as a series of images combined with objects:
“Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses, in the wretched clothing that hung upon poles and lines; Hunger was patched into them with straw and rag and wood and paper; Hunger was repeated in every fragment of the small modicum of firewood that the man sawed off; Hunger stared down from the smokeless chimneys, and started up from the filthy street that had no offal, among its refuse, of anything to eat. Hunger was the inscription on the baker's shelves, written in every small loaf of his scanty stock of bad bread; at the sausage-shop, in every dead-dog preparation that was offered for sale. Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”
We are currently in the Ides of March, but fast-approaching April has been a particularly inspiring subject for personification, perhaps because it heralds a changing season. In the same play Shakespeare wrote: “When well-appareled April on the heel / Of limping winter treads.”
T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land described April as a some sort of bullying agriculturalist:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
April is a begrudging life-giving force for Eliot, but he was far more obsessed with death, famously describing, in The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock, a cloud formation in this extraordinary way: “Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky. Like a patient etherised upon a table.”
Death personified is surely going to come up in many song lyrics, but are any as vivid, or as chillingly funny and dark as Emily Dickinson?
“Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
But poets and lyricists don’t just used personification about natural things, but in objects of all kinds. In another song chosen for a previous topic, Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain combines nature with something artificially made, used to express turbulent emotions: “My ship's a sail. Can you hear its tender frame screaming from beneath the waves? All hands on deck at dawn, sailing to sadder shores. Your port in my heavy storms harbours the blackest thoughts.”
Not in that example, but ships and also cars have historically been described as female. Is this a psycho-sexual male perspective? Of course. Sexualisation of objects, from throbbing engines to the curved car body, is a very big part of personification. Guitars and other instruments are arguably made to mimic the female shape. Musicians perhaps aren’t so much Half Man Half Biscuit, as a merging, half-man half-guitar. And a famous visual example of this idea, using a different stringed instrument, much mimicked since, is in Man Ray’s famous photograph from 1924.
But personification is not merely in instruments or cars, but extended to everything. In childhood, but continuing into adulthood, we tend to attribute human qualities in visual world, from imagining faces in wallpaper and anywhere else we care to look. This is a process known as pareidolia. It is thought to be part of our survival instinct, babies designed to quickly recognise the faces of their parents. Carl Sagan, the American cosmologist in his 1995 book, The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark, he argues that our ability to do this at a distance or in poor visibility is not only for survival, but can also result in classic misinterpretation of random images or patterns of light and shade as being faces, leading to all kinds of supernatural or superstitious sightings.
We look for faces in things constantly. There are famous examples such as the Turin Shroud, or pieces of toast with Jesus’s face, to everyday objects. To finish, let’s enjoy some more everyday examples….
And finally, a full pareidolia compilation for you entertainment:
So then, this week’s poetic prince of personification, choosing and creating playlists from your song nominations is the most excellent Uncleben. Deadline for last orders is at 11pm UK time on Monday, for playlists published on Wednesday. Time to face up to the task …
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