Metaphoric vs Literal Meaning: A Study of Two Poems

3 teachers like this lesson
Print Lesson


SWBAT determine the meaning of words in a text by examining their literal and metaphoric meaning.

Big Idea

Do authors always say exactly what they mean?

Warm Up and Mini Lesson

10 minutes

First, let me tell you this lesson is very ambitions.  Please watch this video that explains This lesson is very ambitions. Here is how I don't get bogged down.


Today, students are going to evaluate the meaning of words in a  poem and what those literal meaning is versus the metaphoric meaning (RL.9-10.4).  

To model this, I will display "Hope is the Thing With Feathers,"  by Emily Dickinson, which is a public domain poem. 

I explain that while Ms. Dickinson is talking about Hope but she compares it to a thing with feathers.  She isn't saying that hope literally has feathers, a sweet gale and doesn't ask anything from her.  Rather, she compares Hope, and its many qualities, to those of a bird.  The literal meaning of Hope and the metaphoric meaning of Hope are both described within the poem.  I explain to students that this is an example of an extended metaphor (L.9-10.5). 

Then, I tell students it is their turn to work with a text whose theme is revealed through an extended metaphor.  

Student Work Time--Metaphoric Meaning

15 minutes

I distribute copies of Adrienne Rich's Storm Warnings.  I ask for two volunteers to read the poem.  This video explains why I ask for two volunteers and I read it once.  The copy that I have of the poem was distributed at an AP Conference years ago.  Here is a copy of the poem online. I like the copy that I distribute to students because it asks them to write define the denotative meaning of words and phrases on one side and the metaphorical, or connotative, meaning of words on the other side (RL.9-10.4).  While completing this process, students cite textual evidence (RL.9-10.1) and deducts thematic meaning from the extended metaphor (RL.9-10.2).  

While thinking metaphorically, or conceptually, about a text, the student must evaluate the text's literal meaning which is why we work with the denotative meaning of words.  

I tell students to spend five minutes working with the poem independently.  Then, I explain they can work through the poem with a partner for five minutes. After, we will discuss the poem together, focusing on Rich's description of a literal storm, but metaphorically describing a turbulent time in life. Here is a Storm Warnings Student Work example of the student work.   

Student Work Time--Literal Meaning

15 minutes

Next, I distribute William Wordsworth's sonnet, The World Is Too Much With Us. Wordsworth's poetry is also listed on Project Gutenberg.  I follow the same protocol I used with the previous poem.  We read the poem three times aloud.  I read it once and I ask for two volunteers.  For five minutes, students read and annotate the poem independently, then I let them work together.  After, we discuss the poem together and compare it's literal meaning to the metaphoric meaning of Storm Warnings.  Here is a The World Is Too Much With us student example of her annotated poem.

I chose this sonnet because it is perfect for students to think about literal meeting.  The poem is very straight forward and not incredibly difficult.  Students will be able to evaluate its literal meaning with relative ease.   

Putting is all together

10 minutes

Every year, I have a student who grows frustrated with poetry and this lesson and exclaims, 'How do we know if it is metaphorical or literal? Isn't that up to the reader?"  This is difficult to answer.  Of course, interpretation is personal, but requires textual evidence.  At this point, I always explain to students that while their interpretation of literature is personal, they have to back up their poetry claims with evidence, just like they do when forming an argument.  I wait for this moment (which always comes) and then I ask them to complete this assignment.  

Most literary critics have proclaimed Rich's Storm Warnings a metaphorical poem and Wordsworth's The World Is Too Much With Us a literal poem.  Using textual evidence (RL.9-10.1), prove this to be true.  Examine the poems and provide examples of metaphoric and literal meaning (RL.9-10.2, RL.9-10.4, W.9-10.9).  Turn in your essay when finished.  

I am hoping students will have enough time to finish this essay, but if not, they will take it home for homework.