Have you ever read a poem and realized that a word has a meaning other than the literal meaning? Thats because words can have both denotative and connotative meanings. A denotative meaning is a words literal meaning. Its the definition you find in the dictionary. Connotation, on the other hand, is the association people tend to make with a certain word. A words connotative meaning often evokes an emotional response.
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The denotative and connotative meanings of words coexist. Think about the word snake. The denotative meaning is a reptile that typically has a long body, no limbs, fused eyelids, and a jaw that can expand to swallow large prey. Connotatively, snake means a deceitful, untrustworthy, or dangerous person. Even simple everyday words carry connotations. Think about the words home and house. The words may mean the same thing, but they have different connotations. House, meaning a structure where people can live, carries little or no emotional connotation. Home, a place where a family comes together, has a warmer, friendlier connotation.
The connotative meanings of words can change over time. The word democrat, which now means a system of government by the people, used to have a negative connotation. It meant a prejudiced politician or leader. The word guy is now just a synonym for man. But back in the seventeenth century, the word guy referred to a grotesque person. This connotation came from Guy “Guido” Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the English Houses of Parliament. On November 5, 1605, the English burned a grotesque effigy of him, which was called a guy. Can you think of other words that have changed meaning over time?
Word choice and context determine whether the connotation of a word is positive, neutral, or negative. For example, saying that someone is headstrong is neutral, as it is without judgment. Saying that a person is really determined has a positive connotation, while saying that a person is very stubborn is negative. Consider the words you’d use to describe a project. Saying that the work is really challenging has a positive connotation, while saying that it is really difficult has a negative connotation. Similarly, a word can have different connotations depending on the context it’s used in. Think about the word genius, which means someone who is brilliant. It has a positive connotation, such as describing Robert Frost as a poetic genius. But genius also can have a negative connotation. Have you ever sarcastically called a friend who did something really foolish a genius?
Lesson Activity – Self-Checked
Read more about denotative and connotative meanings of words. Then complete the Shades of Meaning table in the Lesson Activities.
Denotation and Connotation in Poetry
The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “Words differently arranged have a different meaning, and meanings differently arranged have a different effect.” This saying holds true for poets, who often use both denotative and connotative meanings to add to a poem’s meaning. To achieve this, poets employ figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, imagery, irony, and transferred epithet.
Read Robert Burns’s poem “A Red, Red Rose” to see how he uses simile to convey connotations of love. He compares his love to a red rose in the line, “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose.” Here, the word rose has connotations of delicacy and beauty. The word red connotes the passion he feels about his beloved. Burns also compares his love to a melody, “O my Luve’s like the melodie,” where the word melodie connotes his love’s sweetness and harmony.
Robert Frost’s poems are also rich in connotation. Read or listen to “Mending Wall,” which is about two neighbors walking along the wall that separates their properties and replacing the loose stones. The neighbors were getting to know one another, but have started putting up defenses, which comes through in the lines:
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
Denotatively, the wall is a boundary that separates properties, but it has a negative connotation of being a boundary between people. The negative connotation comes through using the words savage and darkness to refer to the neighbor who insists on the barrier:
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Lesson Activity – Self-Checked
In the “Mending Wall” section of the Lesson Activities, write a
100- to 150-word essay about connotative meanings that you identify in Frost’s “Mending Wall.”
Like “Mending Wall,” Frost’s “Desert Places” uses words rich in connotative meanings. Read “Desert Places” to see how Frost combines loaded words with transferred epithet in this poem. Consider the word benighted as it describes the snow in the line, “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow.” While benighted literally means nightfall or being overtaken by darkness, the word has the negative connotation of doubt, which relates to the speaker’s feelings of being hopeless and alone in the world. The vast emptiness of the landscape reflects the speaker’s loneliness.
Frost also uses different denotative meanings of the word desert. In this poem, desert means a sandy barren area and it also means to abandon or leave behind. These meanings show that the speaker feels abandoned and lonely.
Twentieth-century American poet Elizabeth Bishop was known for her use of detailed imagery and wit. Her poem “The Fish” is rich in denotation and connotation. At first glance, this poem is about how the speaker caught a fish and, after some consideration, let it go. The poet describes the fish as “tremendous” because the word tremendous has the connotation that the fish was not only large but also wonderful. It’s a fish that has been through a lot and fought for survival. The rainbow that appears at the end of the poem has biblical connotations. It is reminiscent of the rainbow that appeared when Noah’s animal-filled ark reached safety:
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.
The speaker makes a moral decision to let the fish live.
Lesson Activity – Teacher-Graded
Read Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” and then write a 250- to 300-word essay in the Lesson Activities about the use of denotation and connotation in the poem. Explain what denotation and connotation add to the poem and how they affect its meaning.
Like Frost and Bishop, Ezra Pound is another twentieth-century American poet. Read Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” to see how he uses different connotative meanings in this two-line poem. In this poem, the poet uses the word apparition to describe the crowds of people at a metro station. The denotative meaning of the word apparition is the supernatural appearance of someone or something. Used connotatively, it evokes images of ghosts and the spiritual world and, in that context, death. When the poet goes on to compare the faces to petals on a “black bough,” it reinforces the idea that the crowds at the station make him think about death and mortality, because the word black has the negative connotations of death and funerals.
Lesson Activity – Teacher-Graded
In the Writing Connotative Poetry section of the Lesson Activities, write a short poem that has at least two rich, connotative words. Explain how the emotional or historical uses of your word choices influence the meaning of your poem.
Throughout the ages, poets have used connotation to add to the meaning of their poems. Read Emily Dickinson’s poem “There Is No Frigate like a Book” to see how she compares books to means of transportation to show that a book can take people to faraway lands.
In this poem, Dickinson compares a book to a frigate, which is a nineteenth-century ship propelled by sails and oars. She also compares a book to a courser (a spirited horse) and a chariot. The meaning of this poem is best understood when you consider the historical context of the words frigate, courser, and chariot. These now-outdated modes of transportation were considered grand in the nineteenth century. The poet, writing in the context of her time, lends books an air of romance, pomp, and grandiosity. Now examine the meaning of frugal in these lines from the poem:
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.
Dickinson uses frugal, with its positive connotation of being economical, to convey that “traveling” through reading books is inexpensive and accessible to everyone.
Lesson Activity – Self-Checked
Identify five words from Dickinson’s “There Is No Frigate like a Book” that help convey how the poet feels about books. Write the words in the table in the Lesson Activities, along with their definitions, connotative meanings, and some synonyms. Then replace the five words from the poem with synonyms that have a different connotation. Notice how the changes alter the poem’s attitude.
African American poet Langston Hughes uses connotation to express how he feels about the plight of African Americans in twentieth-century America. Read Hughes’s “Will V-Day Be Me Day Too?” In this poem about the African American struggle for civil rights, he compares the condition of African American soldiers to that of Jews in Europe during World War II.
Hughes uses words that have connotations of equality to highlight the predicament of African Americans. Consider his use of the word uniform, which means both “same” and “a distinctive outfit worn by members of a group,” in this case U.S. soldiers. Hughes uses this word ironically because racial segregation was still rampant in the United States during World War II. So although the army uniform was a standard outfit for all U.S. soldiers, it didn’t make the wearers “uniform,” or equal. Hughes also uses the word connotatively. A uniform is not just an outfit for soldiers but a symbol of national pride and loyalty to one’s country, as depicted in the lines:
I am a Negro American
Out to defend my land
Army, Navy, Air Corps
Even though African Americans donned the army uniform and fought side by side with other races, their honorable service did not ensure acceptance and safety for them, as these lines suggest:
When I take off my uniform
Will I be safe from harmââ‚¬”
Like other great poets who use shades of meaning in their poems, William Shakespeare’s poetry is rich in connotative meanings. Read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 138,” which is a lover’s lament that his beloved doesn’t take him seriously because he’s young.
Look at how Shakespeare uses the word lies in the line, “I do believe her, though I know she lies.” Here, the word lies has negative connotations. Not only is the speaker’s beloved dishonest, she is also unfaithful, as she lies down with other men. This can be derived from the sonnet’s first line “When my love swears that she is made of truth,” wherein the speaker’s love is claiming to be faithful but he doesn’t believe her. The word vainly also has negative connotations in the line “Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young.” The poet’s mistress is proud of her own maturity but thinks the speaker as immature, while he tries unsuccessfully to make her think otherwise.
Lesson Activity – Teacher-Graded
Explore the nuances of the words used in Shakespearean sonnets. Choose one sonnet from the collection of Shakespearean sonnets. Go to the Lesson Activities to chart examples of denotative and connotative language used and describe their effect.
Poets often use denotative and various connotative meanings of words to add to their poems’ meaning and depth. Recall that denotation is the literal dictionary definition of a word while connotation is the association people have with a word or the emotional response that a word evokes.
Since connotations change over time, it is important to consider the contextââ‚¬”whether historical or culturalââ‚¬”of a poet’s words to understand what the poet is truly trying to say. Poets also make use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, imagery, irony, and transferred epithet, to add to the denotations and connotations of the words they use.
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