How do you describe the relationship of the denotative versus the connotative level of a poem?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In poetry, more than in other genres, connotation is paramount to the enrichment of meaning in words which are fewer than in other forms of literature.  Thus, poets choose words very carefully.  In, for instance, a short poem by Emily Dickinson, "There is no Frigate like a Book,"

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry--

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppres of Toll--

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human soul.

much of the meaning comes from the selection by Miss Dickinson of frigate rather than steamship; coursers rather than horses, and chariot rather than streetcar although the words are synonyms and have similar denotations.  However, frigate conjures the idea of mystery and adventure and exploration; and, coursers is much more romantic than the common word, horses.  So, too, is chariot as it sujects exotic lands and mythology with Phaeton who tried to drive the chariot of Apollo, as well as the famous painting of Aurora with her beautiful, charging horses.  The word traverse has the suggestion of a grand crossing, not just a mere passing from one point to another.

Of course, some words have variable denotations, and while writers are careful to define words precisely in context, the poet sometimes chooses some words purposely that have different denotations so that the word will mean different things at the same time. In fact, denotation often aids connotation.  For example, in a poem named "Mirror," the second line reads, "Whatever I see I swallow immediately/Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.  The word swallow denotes both accepting without question and consuming or devouring; with these two denotations, there is also the connotation of both an inability to think and a destruction or obliteration. 

So, while connotation of words is of paramount importance, sometimes words' connotation and denotation work well with each other.


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