Henry David Thoreau

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Walden: Personification 3 key examples

Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
The Bean-Field
Explanation and Analysis—Impatient Beans:

A humorous and enlivening bit of personification appears in "The Bean-Field" as Thoreau describes his little farm:

Meanwhile my beans, the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles already planted, were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest were in the ground; indeed they were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-respecting, this small Herculean labor, I knew not.

Here, the author describes the beans as "impatient to be hoed." This instance of personification gives them a humanlike quality—the capacity for impatience. In reality, Thoreau himself was impatient to hoe his beans, and he projects his emotions onto the beans because there are no other people around to care. He often personifies elements of nature in order to make them seem more human and relatable.

The other essential point of personifying beans is to enliven a potentially boring passage. Thoreau not only desires to record his experience but also to convince people that his simple life is worth adopting, which he cannot do if people stop reading his work out of sheer boredom with the subject. If he compares the beans to humans and makes them characters in a little story about a so-called battle, then they take on a new aspect of interest.

In another passage, Thoreau uses personification to describe the interaction between his garden and its pests. He declares that "My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks." But he also insists that his beans will ultimately "be too tough for them, and go forward to meet new foes." The idea of beans "going forward" to meet their "foes" sounds ridiculous, but by personifying the beans as soldiers who must meet "enemies," the author inspires the reader to root for his garden. Here, personification makes his small garden seem very grand, and Thoreau's serious tone lets the reader know how important it is to him. By enlivening his descriptions with personification, he conveys the significance of his garden and makes this section much more engaging to read.

The Ponds
Explanation and Analysis—Lips of the Lake:

Throughout Walden, Thoreau personifies natural features to make them seem integral to the human experience. In "The Ponds," Thoreau personifies the placid lake as having "lips":

These are the lips of the lake on which no beard grows. It licks its chaps from time to time. When the water is at its height, the alders, willows, and maples send forth a mass of fibrous red roots several feet long from all sides of their stems in the water, and to the height of three or four feet from the ground, in the effort to maintain themselves[...]

Here, Thoreau expresses his fondness and familiarity with the lake by describing its features in intimate detail. By "beard," he likely refers to the white foam created by little waves on other parts of the lake. By contrast, the pond is calm, placid, and free of waves as "no beard grows" upon its little shore. The licking of the lake's "chaps" refers to the variation in the water's height from one season to the next, which suggests the cyclical nature of its existence. With similar reverence, Thoreau also refers to lakes as among the most beautiful natural features, a sort of "earth's eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."

In the passage above, the various trees are another example of personification. Thoreau describes how the trees "send forth" their roots in an "effort to maintain themselves." Not all elements of nature can be as peaceful as the pond; many plants and animals must struggle to keep themselves alive. This constant struggle sometimes reflects the futile struggles of humanity itself; for instance, this moment echoes other passages about people putting down roots and settling in a single place, only to be limited by their fixation on modern comforts.

Personification demonstrates Thoreau's intimacy with nature, which makes him seem trustworthy on the subject. It also encourages the reader to respect, revere, and get to know nature as if it were a person. The whimsical passage about a lake with "lips" and a "beard" not only provides a humorous and original image; it likewise suggests that Thoreau cherishes the lake and pond as if they were his friends.

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Brute Neighbors
Explanation and Analysis—Ant Armies:

In "Brute Neighbors" Thoreau employs personification and dramatic visual imagery to describe a "war" between two groups of ants:

One day when I went out to my wood-pile [...] I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly [...] the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. 

Here, Thoreau discovers two ants fighting with each other. Visual imagery helps convey that they are not the only combatants; the fight is not a duel but a war: "the chips were covered" in ants. He also specifies the large size of the black ant as being "nearly half an inch long." Color imagery includes the phrase "the red always pitted against the black."

The drama in this passage comes mainly from the war language (which could be categorized as personification). And an allusion to an ancient Greek battle conveys the extent of the damage and death among the ants as "legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales." This example of personification makes this passage relevant to the rest of Walden because it dramatizes a small struggle among animals and subtly reflects challenging relationships among humans. Here and elsewhere, Thoreau takes inspiration from nature and draws comparisons between the animal and human worlds. It is very important to note that his comparison is sincere. He does not use any sarcasm when he likens ants to heroes in ancient legends. He rather wants to remind the reader that while not everything in nature is as peaceful as the placid Walden Pond, most creatures have a certain grace or beauty that recalls the virtues of humanity.

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