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Poetics of flexible personification gestalts in Anglo-American literary tradition.

1. Introduction

The article deals with a specific characteristic of English poetry--a flexible gestalt of a personified object or phenomenon--which arises from distinguishing features of the English language. Such images can be also called wandering or oscillating gestalts which foreground, in the maiority of the cases, different, opposite characteristics of one and the same obiect, phenomenon or notion by formatting the artistic image alternately, in terms of either masculine or feminine connotations.

Personification or animation of objects and abstract notions as a verbalized way of thinking about the world is a generic feature of poetic speech that dates back to the times of mythological mapping of reality. The global personification which took place in the archaic epoch had a considerable gnosiological value, for it is through the animation of natural forces and sexualisation of inanimate objects that the human consciousness learned to understand the surrounding world. People learned to perceive or interpret dumb things through bringing the inanimate substances and abstract ideas in correlation with themselves, in other words, through identifying themselves with the objects of cognition. The poetic conceptualization of reality through animated objects, phenomena and abstract notions occurs in much the same way.

2. English personification gestalts

In this article, personification (a variety of metaphor) is considered in the light of the gestalt theory. According to the gestaltist law of contiguity, two or more elements brought together by analogy give birth to a new whole that is other than the sum of its parts. Metaphor-as-gestalt has become one of the important postulates in cognitive poetics, although its understanding as well as the issue of figure-ground relationship may undergo different scholarly interpretations (Freeman 2000, 2009; Stockwell 2002; Tsur 2009, 2012). The view of gestalt adopted in this article correlates with cognitive linguistic findings concerning "an emergent whole", which "involves an act of perceptual restructuring" (Glicksohn, Goodblatt 1993: 89). Such gestalt conception of metaphor is also compatible with Freeman's or Tsur's views, because all three basic uses of the notion "figure" in cognitive poetics (figure-as-gestalt, figure-as-trope and figure-as-icon) "are different but not unrelated" (Vandaele, Brone 2009: 12).

The specificity of English personification stems from those factors that ensure the contiguity of a male or female image and the image of certain object, phenomenon or abstract notion within one semantic framework. In the languages which have the grammatical category of gender, personified images are stenciled basically along the lines suggested by the grammatical gender of the nouns that denote those objects and notions that undergo personification. Thus, any noun of masculine gender becomes the bearer of a masculine image, and, accordingly, any noun of feminine gender carries a feminine image. Such means of metaphorisation that exploits the figurative characteristics supplied by the category of grammatical gender leads to establishing a certain group of personified images with stable masculine or feminine connotations that belongs to the fund of ethnopoetic phenomena. In contrast to these languages, English can often be described as gender-insensitive, because in this language, gender is no longer an inflectional category. Therefore in many cases, poetic personification patterns those conceptual templates that have got implanted in Anglo-Saxon cultural tradition. For instance, the images of Love, Death, Time, Heaven or Winter have developed a stable connection with masculine gender, whereas those of Truth, Art, Beauty, Fantasy or Fortune are invariably associated with females.

This specificity of the emergence of English personification gestalts that lies in complete independence of personification processes from language structure is unknown to many European poetic traditions--French, German, Italian or Spanish. It endows an English poet with a unique liberty in connecting images without any restraints on the part of the language material. Having got such carte blanche for materializing their associations, English authors may freely operate the symbolic gender of inanimate objects or abstract notions by either accepting the traditional way of their gender identification or creating a new image through a deviation from the stereotype idea. The second way of ascribing gender to inanimate objects took place even in the epoch of Romanticism, when the ties of established cultural tradition were rather strong and fixed personification gestalts dominated in Anglo-American poetry. In those times the occurrence of flexible personification gestalts was dictated by some imperatives of the poetic context, which consisted in the necessity to take a fresh look at the personified object or notion. For example, the concept of Life, which had assumed solely masculine attributes since Renaissance, becomes [+ feminine] in poems by Wordsworth and Tennyson, and, in both cases, this is explained by the specificity of the created images that embody features traditionally associated with womankind--fickleness and excessive emotionality:
   Oh, no! the visions of the past
   Sustain the heart in feeling
   Life as she is--our changeable Life... (Wordsworth) (PW, 189);

   Life's temperate Noon; her sober Eve,
   Her Night not melancholy... (W. Wordsworth) (PW, 187);

   And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
   And Life, a Fury slinging flame (A. Tennyson) (OL, 252).

The radical changes in artistic comprehension of reality at the end of the 19th century had considerably loosened all generally recognized rules and paved way for the legitimization of flexible or wandering gestalts of personified objects and phenomena. That is why, although traditional masculine images of Death and Love, for the most part, retain their prototypic status, the orientation of new poetry to uncommon, subjective semantics resulted in introducing some feminine images. For instance, a respectable lady Life can be juxtaposed to a street hooligan Death:
   Madam Life's a piece of bloom,
   Death does dogging everywhere;
   She's the tenant of the room,
   He's the ruffian on the stairs (OL, 117).

A traditional masculine image of Love that caught the fancy of English poets in the Renaissance and Romanticism eras is reexamined in favour of a female image, due to the down-to-earth, prosaic character of the latter in modernist poetry:
   Over the dewy grass with a small suitcase
   Love comes trotting and stops to hold on a shoe.
   To go away with her! (Dunn) (PB, 108).

An analogous reinterpretation of a preconceived idea is observed in relation to the concept of Death. Death as a female gestalt becomes a convincing representation of weakness and helplessness, in contrast to the vital force of all the happy moments generously granted by Life:
   Yellow dust on a bumble
      bee's wing,
   Gray lights in a woman's
      asking eyes,
   Red ruins in the changing
      sunset embers:
   I take you and pile high
      the memories.
   Death will break her claws
      on some I keep. (Sandburg) (S, 55-56)

Similarly, the image of Poetry, which alongside Fantasy, Music and Art, has been traditionally treated in English literature as a female being, is portrayed in modern poetic texts as having two gender features simultaneously. The new gestalt of Poetry can emerge, in particular, in connection with the female authourship of the poetic text. Compare, for instance:
   Tomorrow, I suspect to see you on the hill
   going toward your mistress Poesie--
   the flag drops down like Quixote's...

      (MarkMcMorris) (ANP, 147)

   I'm married to poetry
   and he says But don't let him go
   and I don't for a little while longer
   but now everything is changed and not
   as bad as I bed down with poetry and myself
   whom I each love intwined real love and
   would welcome another (L.A.Brown) (ANP, 110)

At the same time there has always existed a group of personified creatures with an ambivalent gender that resulted from the absence of a well-articulated tradition in poetic gender identification of the corresponding objects or notions. For example, the image of the sea can be interpreted as both a masculine and a feminine creature, subject to those connotations that are relevant for being actualized in the given poetic context. Such flexible gestalt of the sea correlates with its symbolic ambivalence as "the lower ocean", a mediator between the amorphous substances (air and gas) and those given a shape (earth and solid things), associated simultaneously with life and death (the archetype of mother). Accordingly, Wordsworth presents sea as a male when its might is contrasted with its ability to be mild and submissive:
   Comes that low sound from breeezes rustling over
   The grass-crowned headland that conceals the shore?
   No; 'tis the earth-voice of the mighty sea,
   Whispering how meek and gentle he can be! (PW, 356).

However, if the sea manifests itself as a treacherous and unpredictable natural element, having considerable destructive power, it assumes the aspect of a female:
   Sea waves are green and wet,
   But up from where they die,
   Rise other vaster yet,
   And those are brown and dry.
   They are the sea made land
   To come at the fisher town,
   And bury in solid sand
   The men she could not drown.
   She may not know cove and cape,
   But she does not know mankind
   If by any change of shape,
   She hopes to cut off mind... (CP, 330).

The flexibility of personification gestalts manifests itself in a most conspicuous way within the framework of an individual poetic mapping of the world offered by a certain author. Thus, Byron is rather consistent in following the masculine pattern of Love images that embody a militant or heroic spirit:
   Against all noble maladies he [i.e. love--E.D.] 's bold,
   But vulgar illnesses don't like to meet,
   Nor that a sneeze should interrupt his sigh,
   Nor inflammations redden his blind eye (B, 73);
   ... He
   Seems Love turn'd a lieutenant of artillery! (B, 338).

However, he can occasionally admit a female presentation of Love to foreground its entirely different characteristics:
   Devotion and her daughter Love (SB, 161);
   Oh, Love! of whom great Caesar was the suitor,
   Titus the master, Antony the slave (B, 119).

3. Conclusion

As hopefully demonstrated here, the decline of grammatical gender, a characteristic of the English language exploited in the poetic conceptualization of the world has turned into a source of fascinating image-building opportunity for Anglo-American authors and has resulted in the emergence of flexible personification gestalts that constitute a distinguishing feature of their poetry.


Freeman, Margaret 2000. Poetry and the Scope of Metaphor: Towards a Cognitive Theory of Literature. In Barcelona, Antonio (ed.). Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads. A Cognitive Perspective. Berlin, New-York: Mouton de Gruyter, 253-283.

Freeman, Margaret 2009. Minding: feeling, form, and meaning in the creation of poetic iconicity. In Brone, Geert, Jeroen Vandaele (eds.), Cognitive Poetics: Goals, Gains and Gaps. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 169-196.

Glicksohn Joseph, Chanita Goodblatt 1993. Metaphor and Gestalt: Interaction Theory Revisited. Poetics Today, 14 (1), 83-97.

Stockwell, Peter 2002. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London, New York: Routledge.

Tsur, Reuven 2009. Metaphor and figure-ground relationship: comparisons from poetry, music, and the visual arts. In Brone, Geert, Jeroen Vandaele (eds.), Cognitive Poetics: Goals, Gains and Gaps. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 237-278.

Tsur, Reuven 2012. Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance. Sussex: Academc Press.

Vandaele, Jeroen, Geert Brone 2009. Cognitive poetics. A critical introduction. In Brone, Geert, Jeroen Vandaele (eds.), Cognitive Poetics: Goals, Gains and Gaps. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1-29.


NP = Jarnot, Lisa, Leonard Schwartz, Chris Straffolino (eds.) 1998. An Anthology of New (American) Poets. Jersey City, New Jersey: Talisman House, Publishers.

B = Byron, George Gordon 1948. Don Juan. Moscow: Izdatelstvo literatury na inostrnnyh yazykah.

CP = Frost, Robert 1967. Complete Poems of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

OL = The Oxford Library of Words and Phrases. 1990. Volume I. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Second Edition. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

PB = Blake Morrison, Andrew Morton (eds.) 1982. The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. London: Penguin Books.

PW = Wordsworth, William 1946. Poems of Wordsworth. Chosen and edited by Matthew Arnold. New York: Macmillan and Co., Ltd.

S = Sandburg, Carl. 1994. Chicago Poems. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

SP = Wordsworth, William 1996. Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books.

SB = Byron, George Gordon 1979. Selections from Byron. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Elena Doobenko

'Taras Shevchenko' Kyiv National University
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Title Annotation:DIDACTIC ISSUES
Author:Doobenko, Elena
Publication:European English Messenger
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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