Definition and Examples of Prosopopoeia

The Prosopopoeia is a figure by which in its presentationOpens in new window, some fictitious or supposed person or thing in the discourse are spoken to or attribute speech to, such as inanimate things and dead persons as if they were living, and those that are absent as if they were present.

In other words, the ascription of a name, a face or a voice to the absent, the inanimate, or the dead.

The Prosopopoeia Differs slightly from Personification

The rhetorical figure, PersonificationOpens in new window, is sometimes termed Prosopopoeia, but, strictly speaking, Prosopopoeia is more general, and consists all kinds of speaking in which the speaker represents for the time either a personified thing or those who are absent, which includes the dead, supernatural beings, or even inanimate beings.

Etymology of the Term

The rhetorical figure of “prosopopoeia” is traceable to the Greek prosōpon poiein, which literally means “to confer a mask.” Prosopopoeia appears more often in conjunction with the related figures of ApostropheOpens in new window and DialogismusOpens in new window.

The rhetorical figure prosopopoeia is often considered a rhetorical term for the mental phenomenon, of which, the literary philosopher, Paul de ManOpens in new window calls ‘the prosopopoeia of voice and name’. This is said to denotes the figure of reading or understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all poetic texts. And as such, it is lavishly incorporated into our culture: perhaps we can reflect on all the cartoons and commercial jingles with talking objects, toasters, etc.

Examples of Prosopopoeia

Perhaps a notable example of the figure, where objects are speaking, is in the scripture, particularly in Psalm 19:1/2,

  1. The heavens are telling the glory of God
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
    Day after day they pour forth speech;
    And night after night they declare knowledge.
  2. Likewise, another example of the talking trees in Psalms 96 and 148,

  3. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    Before the lord, for He is coming.
    Praise the Lord … mountains and all hills,
    Fruit trees and all cedars!
  4. There is an especially nice case of a talking tree in Isaiah 14:

  5. The cypresses exult over you,
    the cedars of Lebanon, saying,
    ‘Since you have slept,
    No woodsman comes to cut us down.’
  6. “The very stones of the street speak your wickedness.”
  7. “If your ancestors were now alive, and saw you abusing yourself, in misspending your estate, by them providently gathered together, and conferred upon you, would they not say thus, &c.”

Taking accounts of all the observed examples above, perhaps prosopopoeial is more than just an uncommon rhetorical device in the classical tradition; maybe it is common enough to be a mode of expression, a mode of thought, or a even a mode of experience, like animism or mythology.

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  • References
    • Erastus Otis Haven's, Rhetoric: A Text-book, Designed for Use in Schools and Colleges, and for Private Study. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, Franklin Square, (1871);
    • Paul de Man, Autobiography as De-facement, MLN 94 (19979): 926;
    • Peacham (1577) O3r (“prosopeia”);
    • Puttenham (1589) 246 (“prosopopeia,” “the counterfait in personation”).

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