Beyond Denotations: The Language in Poetry

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Beyond Denotations
If used skillfully, the language in poetry can capture the essence of words. It draws power from both the writings of the poet and the intellect and imagination of the reader, storing many layers of meaning in ordinary words. A poet does this by harnessing the connotations of words, meanings associated with them. While denotations are dictionary definitions, and may not change for a long time, connotations are ever-changing and gain new meanings as time passes. For example, in a post 9-11 world the word airplane has significantly different connotations than it used to. What had before suggested travel and peanuts now also brings to mind a tragic event. The main difference between denotations and connotations is that the former is defined by the context of the poem (although multiple denotative meanings may be used for a single word), and the latter can bring context into the poem. One word that has particularly significant connotative meanings is the word lamb. The dictionary definition of lamb is a young sheep, a wooly quadruped mammal. It can also refer to any mild or gentle person, but aside from that there aren’t too many different dictionary meanings. The word lamb is, however, steeped in cultural and religious connotations. When Blake says “Little lamb, God bless thee!” in his poem “The Lamb” he is referring to Christ, who dies to atone for man’s sins. Here, lamb is associated with Christianity and suggests purity, innocence of youth, and peace. It evokes calmness and appreciation of life and God. Blake tells an actual lamb how Jesus, who goes by the same name, “Gave thee life, and bid thee feed.” The word lamb suggests sacrifice; because they do not make sounds when they are killed, sacrificial lambs are symbolic to Christ’s crucifixion. The word is also tied to religious connotations through things like flock and shepherd, symbols for a reverend and those he looks after. Blake’s poem “The Shepherd” depends on this connotation. The...
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