This a phrase coined by the chaetophobic (more about this in a later blog) critic and essayist John Ruskin , to call attention to the tendency on the part of second-rate poets (surely not me) to attribute to nature the emotions and motivations of human beings…….. clouds seem sullen, leaves dance, and rocks are always indifferent. Ruskin was so upset about this, he wrote a polemic about it. Within it he cites a passage from a poem of the day
“They rowed her in across the rolling foam -/ The cruel, crawling foam “
He then sniffs, “The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind that attributes to it, these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged in grief.” However, while this practice may have struck Ruskin as, in his word “morbid,” a pathetic fallacy is now a fairly neutral term used to designate any nature-as-human image, whether convincing (as in the hands of Shakespeare or Keats) or absurd (as above). Look for a lot of pathetic fallacy in the Romantic poets ( you know the ones, where mountains mourn and there is always a rose tipped dawn) and also seemingly compulsory in everything that Thomas Hardy ever wrote.