How will the context determine which denotations and which connotations are relevant in a poem?

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A common misunderstanding in interpreting a passage or poem is to look for meaning in individual words. On the surface this point sounds counterintuitive. After all, do not words convey meaning? However, some reflection will show that meaning is found in contexts, because the denotation or definition of words is broad. A brief look at any dictionary will make this point clear. For example, people would say that the word “bar” refers to an establishment that serves alcoholic beverages, but it also points to other meanings. “Bar” can in a different context be used to refer to a straight metal object. One could also add another meaning if one changes the context and focuses on the court of law. With a little thought, one can multiply examples endlessly. Linguists call this aspect of words, polysemy. The point is that meanings can change, even radically, based on the context. Therefore, responsible interpretation will recognize that the meaning of words is almost entirely contextual.


Connotation differs from denotation in that the former is related to the subjective and cultural experiences of individuals. For example, when a person uses the word, “father,” it will not be value free. A father may connote various other thoughts and feelings such as kindness, severity, love, or abuse. Therefore, in interpreting a passage, it will be important to ask what words connote in that particular context. Also it will be important to realize that words can connote very different notions with a change in time and place.

If you keep these two points in mind, interpreting poetry or any other text will be much better.