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Connotation in Phyllis Wheatley's Poetry

by Marianne Grisolano
Moraine Valley Community College
Palos Heights, Illinois

This lesson is part of a unit studying the elements of poetry, including various forms of diction, tone, figures of speech, symbols, and meter. This lesson is based on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. It takes approximately one to two days and should be preceded by a general introduction to Wheatley's life and times in order to place the works in their cultural context.

  • To enable students to understand how words with similar meanings can have negative or positive connotations
  • To demonstrate how the poet's choice of words affects meaning
  • To analyze the effect of word choice/connotation in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley
Activities and Instruction
The class begins with an activity to focus the students' attention and provide a basis for discussion during the lecture portion of the lesson. Students spend two minutes responding to the following prompt:
"Make a list of everything the word young brings to mind."
Students then share their responses as a lead-in to the following explanation: Connotations are the associations that attach themselves to many words, deeply affecting their meanings and creating a certain emotional weight. These connotations can be negative or positive -- sometimes both. In fact, Stuart Hall, author of Representation and the Media, asserts that most words have connotations for us, depending on the context in which they are used and our own cultural experiences. Certain connotations are widely recognized within a culture; for example, some Americans would connote the word freedom with democracy. Words can also have different connotations in different contexts. For example, we would expect a car engine to be "greasy," but if the word is used to describe a person or food, the connotation is usually negative. Other connotations are less obvious and require us to think about their implications and associations more carefully.

After this explanation, students do the following exercises: First, they complete a worksheet that consists of 10 commonly used words.
  Connotation Worksheet (.rtf/11KB)

Students list as many negative and positive connotations of the words as they can. The exercise is completed in groups of three or four; students spend about five to 10 minutes brainstorming and five to 10 minutes sharing the results.

Next, the class reads the Phyllis Wheatley poem "On Being Brought from Africa to America."
  On Being Brought from Africa to America

Students (in the same groups as in the previous exercise) analyze the poem, selecting at least five words that have a strong connotation. What other words could the poet have used instead? Would other word choices could have created the same emotional response? When they are finished, students share their observations and explain how the words they selected contribute to the poem's meaning. If some words are not mentioned, draw students' attention to those words with particularly strong connotations, such as pagan, benighted, sable, and black. Students should spend 15 minutes on this activity.

Students are assigned the following for homework. In class, if time allows, read the poem "To the University of Cambridge, in New-England."
  To the University of Cambridge, in New-England

For homework, have students select at least five words from the poem that they feel have a strong connotation. For each word selected, students should write a brief explanation of how that word choice affects the poem's meaning.

Marianne Grisolano has taught composition and literature at the college level for six years. She is currently an adjunct instructor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Heights, Illinois. She earned a bachelor's degree in English and an Illinois secondary teaching certificate in 1995. She also holds a master's degree in communications and is currently completing her second master's degree in writing at DePaul University.

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