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What is Denotation and Connotation in Poetry?
Aspects of Denotation and Connotation in Poetry
Denotation and connotation are two terms that are very important in poetry, especially when you're writing it, because they can determine the meaning of your words and help to set the tone of the poem.

Denotation is a literal meaning or the dictionary definition. It's exactly what you say.

Connotation is when you mean something else or when something might be hidden.

For example:

If you write: He drank his beer quietly.

If we just read this sentence for the literal, or denotative meaning, we learn that he drank his beer without saying much at all. However, we know that drinking beer can be associated with a party atmosphere where everyone is happy and loud, or it can be associated with somberness and even sadness.

That said, we can also take a connotative meaning from this sentence. We can surmise that this man wasn't happy or in good spirits because he drank his beer quietly. Perhaps something is bothering him. Maybe there's a hidden meaning in the way this sentence was written.

Take a look at the sentences below. The denotation is almost the same, but the connotation is different.

  1. His girlfriend tore his favorite shirt.
  2. His girlfriend ripped his favorite shirt.
  3. His girlfriend shredded his favorite shirt.

In sentences one and two, we learn that she tore or ripped his favorite shirt. There really isn't a connotative meaning. But in the third sentence, where the girlfriend shredded his favorite shirt, we can sense a connotative meaning. We can guess that she was probably angry and, therefore, shredded his shirt.

Connotation in Poetry

Using connotation in poetry can enrich meanings or concentrate them -- which means saying less with fewer words. Connotation can also create imagery -- or the pictures your readers see in their minds-- and set the tone.

Most poets use connotations without giving it a second thought. They use words that create imagery and set the tone simply because that is their job as poets. However, if in writing poetry, you find yourself looking through a thesaurus for words to try to find fancy or noble terms to replace more common ones, please don't. Remember, poets use the most effective, meaningful words that suit the poem they are writing. It's not the amount of big, noble words that you can use that determines the greatness of your poem; it's the meaning behind the words you choose.

Denotation in Poetry

In poetry, we make fuller use of words than just every day, normal language does. When we use denotations in poetry, or make literal use of words, we can choose words that have several meanings. With those words, we may use them for one meaning in particular or to imply several different meanings. The denotations we use in poetry will always be in context with the poem. When you use denotations in your poetry, the exact meaning must be able to be derived from the context.

Remember: Denotation means the dictionary definition. There isn't a deeper or hidden meaning.

Literal and Figurative Meanings
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Literal and figurative languages are often used in poetry to give it meaning and, oftentimes, a second meaning. Whereas literal is the surface meaning and obvious meaning of the poem, the figurative meaning is another meaning aside from the one on the surface.

For example:

He talked so loudly

The walls held their ears.

The literal meaning in these lines is that he talked very loudly. Of course, the walls didn't really hold their ears, but by using figurative language, we can express how loud he was talking, and perhaps, how much the narrator wished he would shut up.

This may sound a lot like denotation and connotation, as we discussed in the last chapter. However, do not get these confused. Denotation and connotation refer to word choices more than phrases or a complete poem. Phrases and complete poems can have literal, as well as figurative meanings. Although this can be achieved through denotation and connotation, these are only a few of the tools and devices used to achieve literal and figurative meanings.

We're not going to spend too much time discussing literal meanings. Since the literal meaning is the obvious, surface meaning of the poem, there's really nothing to be learned or gained by spending time with it. However, we're going to talk about figurative meanings in depth, learn how to write figurative phrases and poems, then compare figurative meanings to literal meanings in examples of poetry.

About Figurative Language

The figurative meaning of a phrase, sentence, or poem is the meaning that exists aside from the obvious meaning. It can be said that figurative language is a symbol for the true meaning.

In the example above, "The walls held their ears," can be, in a sense, a symbol for the true meaning. It can be a symbol for how loudly the man was talking. Perhaps by thinking of it this way, it then becomes easier to understand figurative language and to incorporate it into your poems.

Figurative language typically gives us a feeling about its subject. But rather than giving us the feeling by stating a surface meaning, such as, "We held our ears," it uses more descriptive, thought-provoking language to create an emotion or a feeling.

Again, if we refer to the example above:

He talked so loudly

The walls held their ears.

If we would have just written, "He talked so loudly/ We all held our ears," the feeling and imagery contained in those lines wouldn't have been so strong and so clear. In fact, without using figurative language such as this, it's a safe bet to say that the language we used in our poetry would be ordinary - not extraordinary as great poetry requires.

Look at the phrases in the box below. Determine if the literal or figurative meaning is being represented. Write an F for figurative and an L for literal beside the phrase. If it's the figurative meaning, write the literal meaning in the space below the phrase.

Exercise :

    1. The siren screamed of danger.
    2. The girl cried her eyes out.
    3. The girl cried so hard, her eyes were bloodshot.
    4. The siren filled the night.

Poetic Devices

A poetic device is defined as a tool you use to create feeling, emotion, or figurative language in poetry.

Listed below are other poetic devices. The ones in red are most commonly used to create figurative language.



















These poetic devices are used to create feeling, emotion, and to give poetry significance and beauty. In history, many of these devices were used as aids to make the poems easy to remember.

Take a minute to go through the ones we've listed. Underline any that you're already familiar with. Boldface any that you currently use in your own poetry.

Figurative Poetry

You can also write an entire poem that has both a figurative and literal meaning. Frost called these two different meanings "figures," and said that all of his poetry had two figures.

Poetic Devices A-I

A great poet makes the ordinary, and even mundane, seem extraordinary and fresh. A poet can see a woman walking down the road and write about it in a way that captures our imagination, our minds, and brings to mind a whole host of images and ideas. A poet can write about that woman walking down the road in a literal sense, but also give it a figurative meaning.

Poets achieve their art by using poetic devices. These poetic devices allow poets to create tone, connotation, figurative language, and more. Without the use of poetic devices in your poetry, you would simply end up with fancily formatted narrative and nothing more.

Although this section, may contain some devices that are familiar to you, take the time to really study them. They're important not only in reading great poetry; they're also important in writing it.


Allegory is, quite simply, a symbol for something else, typically the human condition, conduct, or experience. A poet may write a poem about a little girl setting out to explore the word, but the allegory of the poem might be innocence and gaining experience in life. Think of the stories you used to read as a kid, where there was always the "moral of the story," and that's an allegory. There's always another meaning to the poem. Every character and nearly every word in the poem is a symbol for something else.

Throughout history, allegories were used to convey political thoughts or ideas, or convey human experiences.

Be careful not to confuse an allegory with figurative language. Remember, an allegory is a symbol for something else and typically represents the human condition. It cannot be interpreted as anything else other than what the poet intended. Figurative language is words or phrases that have two meanings: one literal and the other figurative. Unlike an allegory, figurative language is not symbolic and can have many interpretations, depending on the reader.


Alliteration is the repetition of a beginning sound, usually a consonant. When used in poetry, alliteration gives a pattern to the poem. It catches the eye and the mind and is useful for emphasis, and to represent the action that is taking place.

Example: We heard the soft sound of the slithering snake.

The "s" sound is repeated, calling attention to, and representing, the slithering action of the snake.


An allusion is simply a reference in a poem to another poem. A perfect example is in the 14th line of Wordsworth's The Prelude where he writes, "The earth was all before me." This is an allusion to a line inParadise Lost by John Milton: "The world was all before them." As it turns out, the line in John Milton's poem was an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis.


Assonance is when words with the same vowel sound are used close together, usually in the same line.

An example is in Tennyson's The Lotos-Eaters:

"Round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust blown."

In this line, the "O" vowel sound was used repetitively, almost making the words rhyme.


Caesura is a term you might not be familiar with by name, but if you've read any amount of poetry you know what it is. The word caesura denotes a pause that breaks up a line of verse. It's usually marked by some form of punctuation, such as a comma, colon, dash, or semicolon, but it can also be marked by just a line break.

Let's use Shakespeare as an example:

To be or not to be

That is the question.

We automatically insert a pause, or a caesura, after "To be or not to be," because of the line break. In other words, we read the first line, pause, then move on to the next.

Imagine how different it would sound if the line breaks had been inserted as this:

To be

Or not to be


Is the question.

A feminine caesura follows an unstressed syllable, whereas a male caesura follows a stressed syllable.


Consonance is the effect achieved when words have the same stressed consonance sound, but not the same vowel sound.

If the words share just one set of consonants, such as brick and clock, that is a single consonance.

If they share all the same consonants, such as black and block, it is called a double consonance or a pararhyme.


A hyperbole is nothing more than an exaggeration. It helps the reader picture what is written by exaggerating it. It can be used for emphasis, or for somewhat of a humorous effect.

Look at this example from Ralph Waldo Emerson's The Concorde Hymn:

"Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world."

Of course, the shot really wasn't heard around the world, but this exaggeration - or hyperbole- emphasizes the importance of the shot that was fired.


Imagery is, quite simply, the creation of images using words.

A famous example of imagery is in Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare, when he creates an image for the reader by comparing his love to a summer's day.

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