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Literary Devices Study Guide (page 3)

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Personification

Writers often want readers to feel an emotion very strongly. The author or poet can accomplish this through a literary device called personification. Personification means giving human characteristics to something that is not human. Readers are more strongly affected by comparisons to human behaviors. Which of these sentences creates a more powerful image?

  1. The dawn turned the sky pink and purple.
  2. The dawn put on her robes of pink and purple and shook out her golden hair against the sky.

The second example personifies the dawn by suggesting that it is a woman, with a body to clothe with robes and hair to shake out. This second statement produces a stronger visual image for the reader. It also creates a character of the dawn by giving her an active part in the story.

Next is a poem called "The Eagle," written by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Read the poem actively and try to locate the personification. Read it both silently and out loud.

The Eagle

  1. He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
  2. Close to the sun in lonely lands,
  3. Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
  4. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
  5. He watches from his mountain walls,
  6. And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The poet says that the eagle ("he") "clasps" the rock "with crooked hands." Do eagles have hands? No, they don't. The poet has given the eagle human features. This device helps the reader to picture the scene and understand the character of the eagle.

Alliteration

There's another literary device in this poem, too. Read the first line out loud again. Do you hear the repetition of the /k/ sound? "He clasps the crag with crooked hands." This repetition of a specific sound, especially at the beginning of words that appear near each other, is called alliteration. Alliteration helps create mood in a poem and enables the poem to make music. It's one of the favorite tools of poets.

Irony

Irony is a powerful literary device, but it can also be tricky to recognize. The types of irony include:

Verbal irony: The words mean something different than they first appear to.

Situation irony: An event or result is the opposite of what was expected.

The first type of irony, verbal irony, is similar to sarcasm. The author expects the reader to know the hidden meaning of the words. A classic example of this type of irony is Jonathan Swift's essay "A Modest Proposal." Swift argues that the solution to Ireland's famine is to start eating human babies. Did the author really think that was a good solution? Of course not! The reader gets clues to the author's use of irony by paying attention to the tone and the words he uses.

The second type, situation irony, is part of the plot. It occurs when what happens is the opposite of what you (or the character) expected or thought possible. It is not necessarily ironic every time something bad or unexpected happens. Let's look at an example.

Shi had stayed up all night working on his research paper. Finally, by 6:00 A.M., he had everything ready: cover page, essay, Works Cited page, and illustrations. This was the best essay he'd ever written, and he couldn't wait to present it to the class. He smiled as he showered and got ready for school. He smiled to everyone he passed on his way to the bus stop and smiled at the bus driver. He sat down in his usual seat and hummed to himself for a little while. Then he opened his bag. He wanted to admire his paper once more before his presentation. Of course, he'd left his paper on the kitchen table.

Here, Shi had stayed up all night preparing his paper and presentation. He had everything ready, and he was excited about presenting his work. But his satisfaction and excitement turned into disappointment because he'd left his work at home. The irony is heightened by the way he smiles happily and confidently until he discovers his error.

Summary

Literary devices are used to express meaning in a creative, poetic way. Watch for similes and metaphors, and think about the comparisons the writer is making. Enjoy the sound of alliteration and picture the image created by personification. Pay attention to tone and style clues to recognize irony. Remember, writers choose their words carefully because they want to create a certain effect.

SKILL BUILDING UNTIL NEXT TIME

  1. Read a poem on your own. Do you see any similes? Metaphors? Alliteration? Personification? Irony? Can you determine the tone? What happens? What does it add up to? What's the message?
  2. Read a short story today. Apply the technique you used to understand poems to discover some literary devices in the story.

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Literary Devices Practice Exercises

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