Prosopopoeia: Definition and Examples

A group of High School students in a library all wearing masks

White Packert/Getty Images 

A figure of speech in which an absent or imaginary person is represented as speaking is called prosopopoeia. In classical rhetoric, it's a type of personification or impersonation. Prosopopoeia was one of the exercises used in the training of future orators. In The Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham called prosopopoeia "the counterfeit impersonation."

Etymology

From the Greek, prósopon "face, person", and poiéin "to make, to do".

Pronunciation

pro-so-po-po-EE-a

Examples and Observations

Gavin Alexander: Prosopopoeia allows its users to adopt the voices of others; but it also has the potential to show them that when they think they are speaking in their own person, they are prosopopeias themselves.

Theseus in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve:
Lovers, to bed; 'tis almost fairy time.

Paul De Man and Wlad Godzich: That a catechesis can be a prosopopoeia, in the etymological sense of 'giving face,' is clear from such ordinary instances as the face of a mountain or the eye of a hurricane. It is possible that, instead of prosopopeia being a subspecies of the generic type catachresis (or the reverse), the relationship between them is more disruptive than that between genus and species.

John Keats: Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Jose Antonio Mayoral: Under the term prosopopeia, as can be inferred etymologically from the Greek and Latin appellations, authors use the device of introducing in discourse a feigned presentation of characters or personified things, that is, feigned sub specie personae. The usual form of this presentation is through the attribution of human properties or qualities, especially those of speaking or listening (the terms dialogismos and sermonocinatio refer to this property). The device must be properly regulated by the literary norms of stylistic decorum. The majority of authors usually distinguish between two modalities in attributing the device to characters or personified things: (1) 'direct discourse' (prosopopoeia recta) or (2) 'indirect discourse' (prosopopoeia obliqua). The most elaborated doctrine concerning this figure of speech, as in the case with ethopoeia, appeared in ancient Greek handbooks for rhetorical exercises (progymnasmata), in which both appear tightly linked.

N. Roy Clifton: The easiest means to prosopopoeia in 'moving pictures' is using animation to give human shape and motion to lifeless things. A train at the top of a hill sniffs a flower before swooping down the other slope. Holsters even spread themselves to receive Panchito's revolvers (The Three Caballeros, Norma Ferguson). A steam engine is given eyes, piston chambers that thrust like feet when it pulls, and a mouth and voice that cry 'All aboard' (Dumbo, Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen). A building hoist falling at breakneck speed politely slides across to the next shaft on meeting someone, sliding back again after it has passed him (Rhapsody in Rivets, Leon Schlesinger and Isadore Freleng).