One of the purposes of literature is to open the reader’s mind to deeper perspectives and profound connections. Throughout the ages, literary critics have amassed a considerable list of terms, such as simile and personification, that name writerly tricks and techniques. The term simile refers to a simple comparison between two things that are clearly not the same using the word like or as. Personification refers to a clever way the writer invites the reader to imagine that something clearly inanimate, like an old shoe, or animate but lacking a life force, such as a tornado, is in fact alive.
A really good simile offers the reader an insightful surprise. In the hands of an inexperienced writer, the tendency to find identification using a simile too often is manifested as a cliché. A poem that describes a child as "quiet as a mouse" isn’t doing the child, the mouse, or the reader any good by offering a deeper way of considering the situation described. On the other hand, William Wordsworth’s famous line, “I wandered lonely as a cloud” offers both a simile and personification at once. It’s important to note that one way clichés are born is through overuse; Wordsworth’s simile was such a hit that it rapidly entered the vernacular and devolved to the level of a cliché.
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Simile and personification are closely related as they both spring from metaphor. Many readers remember that metaphor is defined as a direct comparison of two unlike things. Essentially, this means that a metaphor is a simile without the application of like or as. It fuses two completely disparate objects, ideas, or events into a single thing. For example, a young child might exult, "I am sunshine all over my face" when he or she wants to express tremendous happiness.
Both simile and personification mingle two very different essences, but personification does so with a specific methodology. In personification, one of the elements is a living thing or at least suggests a living thing, while the other clearly is not. As with simile and metaphor, personification, in the wrong hands, becomes cliché or even worse, sentimental, such as an old house that is described as a beaten puppy.
Of all the poets, children are perhaps the most attuned to the possibilities of personification, probably because, to them, the entire world is full of animated personalities. A child who remarks that the autumn leaves are waving good-bye to fall and hello to winter sees the leaves as a thousand hands belonging to a tree. One who is concerned that grandpa’s winter overcoat appears to be hunched and waiting in the closet sees that the coat has taken on the personality of the person who has worn it.