Pathetic Fallacy is a literary device in which nature is described as having human emotions, feelings or characteristics.
It is a specific type of personification, but whereas personification covers all objects to which human emotions may be applied, pathetic fallacy relates specifically to nature (e.g. flora and fauna, weather).
The term was first devised by John Ruskin, a social critic from the Victorian times, who used it when criticising popular poetry of the late 18th century and early Romantic works.
Why is Pathetic Fallacy used?
- Communicating Meaning: As with all metaphors, this literary device is especially useful at emphasising meaning. The figurative nature of the tool makes it particularly effective at communicating experiences or emotions that may otherwise be difficult to explain.
- Creativity: Whole poems can be created around just one key metaphor and associated use pathetic fallacy, allowing for in depth exploration of a key idea or concept. This was particularly common as part of the Romantic movement.
In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (English Romantic Verse), Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses pathetic fallacy to help create effective imagery.
“All in a hot and copper sky”
“The bloody Sun, at noon”
These descriptions, utilising pathetic fallacy, highlight the relentless heat and conditions that the sailors described in the poem have to endure. Giving human characteristics helps a reader to better understand what is being described, and therefore they picture the scene more effectively.
William Wordsworth is another Romantic poet who used this device in his poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, in this instance for creativity and to help communicate emotions.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales”
There are a whole range of examples of pathetic fallacy which rely on clichés (e.g. ‘furious storm’), and these are particularly apparent with the breadth of literature available today, however Wordsworth’s “lonely’ cloud description still stands out as a creative and imaginative. This description also encourages empathy both with the cloud and its desires, which are likely to be shared by many readers.
Lord Tennyson uses the technique in ‘Maud’:
“The red rose cries”
Emily Bronte also uses the technique in ‘Wuthering Heights’:
“There was a violent wind”