Connotation in Phillis Wheatley's Poetry

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Authored by

  • Marianne Grisolano
    Moraine Valley Community College
    Palos Heights, Illinois


This lesson on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley is part of a unit studying the elements of poetry, including various forms of diction, tone, figures of speech, symbols, and meter. 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 lesson begins with an activity to focus the students’ attention and provide a basis for discussion during the lecture portion. 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 connotation worksheet that consists of 10 commonly used words.

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 5–10 minutes brainstorming and 5–10 minutes sharing the results.

Next, the class reads Phillis Wheatley’s poem, 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.


In class, if time allows, read the poem 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.