We sometimes come across, in a poem or a novel, descriptions of nature that are not, strictly speaking, accurate. We may have read of flowers ‘dancing happily’ in the breeze or ‘angry waves’ smashing themselves against rocks, or the wind ‘whispering’ to the trees. It is an indisputable scientific fact that a flower doesn’t have the skill set or the agency to start dancing. Whatever atrocity you may commit on a wave, it won’t get angry at you. As for the wind, it doesn’t have the consciousness to think of anything to say, let alone ‘whisper’, to anyone.
And yet, when we read such descriptions, we don’t feel like calling out the author for writing a falsehood. We don’t think: What nonsense is this? How can a wave be angry? That’s because these descriptions — although false at the level of objective reality — could also be true in the literary context in which they appear. The author is seeking to convey, through these falsehoods, an emotional truth concerning the state of mind of a character or narrator.
Let’s say a character is over the moon because she has heard some fantastic news. Instead of saying ‘she was happy’ — which is boring — the writer might try to convey her joy by other means, such as making the flowers in her garden ‘dance happily’. When a person is in a heightened state of emotion, their impression of the world tends to get coloured by the emotion they are feeling. For the poet or fiction writer, attributing human emotion, motive or capabilities to nature or inanimate objects is a handy way to evoke a particular emotion in the reader’s consciousness and thereby build empathy for the character in question. In literary criticism, the name for such figurative use of language is ‘pathetic fallacy’. It is ‘pathetic’ because it is used to evoke ‘pathos’ or deep feeling — the word ‘pathetic’ comes from the Greek word ‘pathetikos’ which means ‘capable of feeling’. And it is a ‘fallacy’ because inanimate objects are not, in actuality, ‘capable of feeling’. The use of pathetic fallacy as a rhetorical device is common in all forms of literature. The term is used more or less in a neutral sense in literary criticism today. But that was not always the case.
It was the Victorian era English writer, art critic and philosopher John Ruskin who first coined the term in the third volume (1856) of his monumental work Modern Painters. He did not mean it in a complimentary sense. According to the American literary M.H. Abrams, for Ruskin, truth was a “primary criterion of art”. Descriptions that deploy pathetic fallacy did not represent the “true appearances of things” but, in Ruskin’s words, the “extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion or contemplative fancy”. Ruskin’s famous example to demonstrate what he meant by ‘pathetic fallacy’ are the lines,
“The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mould
Naked and shivering, with his cup of gold.”
These lines are “very beautiful,” admits Ruskin, but also “very untrue. The crocus is not a spendthrift, but a hardy plant; its yellow is not gold, but saffron.”
He also takes up the following lines from the English Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge:
“The one red leaf, the last of its clan
That dances as often as it can.”
Again, they are beautiful, Ruskin concedes, but he also finds them to contain “morbid, that is to say, a so far false, idea about the leaf: he fancies a life in it, and will, which there are not; confuses its powerlessness with choice, its fading death with merriment, and the wind that shakes it with music”.
Ruskin was writing in the slipstream of, and in reaction to, the great Romantic poets — William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron — whose literary credo placed emotion at the heart of artistic creation. Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. Ruskin believed that this obsession with feeling — in the hands of lesser talents — often led to excessive sentimentality at the expense of truth. He goes on to argue that “an excited state of the feelings” renders a person temporarily irrational, making him incapable of seeing things as they are, because “they produce in us a falseness in all our impression of external things, which I would generally characterise as the ‘pathetic fallacy’.”
However, he also adds that “the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness… it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it.” He illustrates his distinction between greater and lesser poets through a comparison between some verses of Homer and the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744), noting that the greatest poets are sensitive to the factual aspects of nature even in the context of high emotion, resorting to humanisation only in the rarest of cases where it would be “inhuman” to resist the pressure of passion.
These distinctions gained significance in debates then raging about the role and function of art. Pathetic fallacy as a concept became particularly useful in articulating the relationship between ‘truth’ as rendered by science (reality as it objectively is) and ‘truth’ as expressed in art (reality as experienced by a human subject or consciousness).