An approach to CONTEXT

Like all great art, poetry can be transformative. Poetry has the ability to reach into the soul, to stir around in there and thrash its way to the surface, to change the heart irrevocably, and to invigorate each new breath from thereon as a consequence. The world is never the same once a poem has been added to it according to Dylan Thomas, it is emotion in measure says Hardy, it is just the evidence of your life burning well, poetry being the ash, as suggested by Leonard Cohen. Poetry is all these things because that is why the art form exists: it desperately wants to serve as a window to the soul. Incontrovertibly, poets want us to feel something when we’ve finished reading their endeavour. They want us to consider the world around us as a result of their work. They want us to learn something about ourselves. 

How poets get these feelings across to us has changed over time. Early poetry form was centred heavily on sound, as a means of aiding memorisation and recital of ancient important traditional and prehistoric stories. Homer’s the Illiad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid are cases in point. The themes evoke aspirations of heroism, but also, crucially, succeed in exciting a range of emotions that the reader vicariously endures. The invention of the printing press meant that modern poetry did not only have to rely on sound, but could also employ visual form on the page. Poets had more ways to get their emotions across, but regardless of form, emotion remained everything.

What the reader does with these emotions is, of course, highly subjective. Keats characterises his poetry as reaction against what he felt was the stifling intentions of Colleridge’s philosophical quest for truth. He preferred Shakespeare’s ambiguity in this realm, stating in a letter to brothers George and Thomas, 1817, that ‘man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ It is these states, and more, that we are offered by the poems in our GCSE anthologies, states that needn’t lead to a conclusion or goal, but states that set off the soul on a journey of inner exploration, and ultimately, growth.

Here’s the journey that I get taken on with each of the poems from my board’s anthology:

As a society people need to wake up – they’ve lost their way. They are being let down by the institutions, and ironically, the much praised notion of progress actually opens more doors for exploitation, and moves us further away from what’s real and important. The industrial revolution is now the technological revolution; both eat away at the soul, but we are blindly letting it happen.  
Excerpt from The Prelude
Nature can teach us a lot about humility, and that there are bigger things than us in the world. Also, that we naturally feel a sense of loss when we realise this, as we transition into adulthood, but that this is ok. 
To Autumn
We shouldn’t look too far ahead in life, but to make the most of the moment. Look for the joy in everything around you, because it is there. Take nothing for granted, because it can be lost at any time. 
The hubris of men and institutions that impose themselves on society is immature and laughable. Time always wins, and art records your impact, permanently: what will it be, good or bad? In other words, don’t be arrogant; the only legacy worthwhile is a positive one. The best way to fight oppression is through education and art.
Sonnet 43
Things can change for the better if you hang in there. Perseverance pays off, and life has a tendency to set itself right if you can battle through the tough times. Love is good, and powerful!
A Wife in London
War affects not just the soldiers, but family and society in general. The depths of despair are great, and we should be angered by this fact, and want greater awareness of the collateral damage/ consequences of decisions made in going to war. 
The Soldier
Brooke’s attempt to provide a reprieve for the inevitability of death in the war is probably the wrong tact. His suggestion that it is worth the sacrifice, and that it shall be rewarded in the after life is unfair as he hasn’t seen the realities of war. But, he may also be providing solace to those who will lose loved ones: their deaths won’t be for nothing. In this regard, it is a noble poem.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Owen is horrified by the extensive propaganda promoting war as glorious. He wants people in England to understand the reality, and to be more responsible in advertsising it to young impressionable patriotic boys.
Mametz Wood
Sheers wants us to never forget the sacrifices made by soldiers of the past. He wants to remind us of the brutality of war, and its senseless violence. It reminds us in modern times to ask more questions before we accept war. 
Hawk Roosting
The nature of a despotic leader is worrying, and how we should very much be wary of giving them power. In light of the world’s political in/stability, people should not just be afraid, but take lots and lots of care when deciding on a leader, because the wrong choice can be devastating. Also, this type of domineering attitude can be seen in relationships, and it is also something to be careful of.
Death of a Naturalist
A selfish existence is not sustainable. We can’t always just take and satisfy personal impulse. Also, the transition into adulthood can be confusing, and overwhelming, and awkward, but it is a natural process, and we have to accept it.  
Living Space
We should be more aware of what we actually have in our lives, and inevitably, to be lots more grateful for those things. Also, even if we don’t have what we want, we can still get lots out of life because we have an inner spirit that wants to shine.
Love and relationships can be more intense and difficult than what is presented in the fairy-tale illusion promoted in social media and film. We should be more aware before we jump in. Also, the hype is not only often an unachievable lie, but seriously damaging if we fall for it. 
Letting life just slip by, and losing control of it, like lots of people do in suburbia and beyond is an easy trap to fall into, but one that should be avoided at all costs. 
She Walks in Beauty
A chequered past undoubtedly is because of some sort of trauma, which can be overcome by focusing on inner strength and beauty. Everyone has it within themselves to be able to change. The poem teaches us that the environment is a large contributor to how people behave, so it’s important not to judge a book by its cover. 
Cozy Apologia
We shouldn’t be subsumed by superficial materialistic needs and unobtainable ideals of love and relationships. Being content is good; relationships don’t always have to be dramatic and intense like promoted incessantly on social media and film, and in fact, are shallow when they are. 
The Manhunt
There are extensive consequences of war, and that psychological damage can be just as bad as the physical. Trauma changes a person, and we must learn to understand it before we make conclusions about behaviour.  
As Imperceptibly as Grief
Life is about balance: when things go bad, often it is countered by something good happening. The sooner we accept this natural flow, the more content we will be. Even death is a part of the cycle of life, and we waste time by fighting it. 

This type of expression of the journey the poems are taking me on is more than just an expression of AO1, and what is happening in the poem. It’s very much moving closer to the WHY of the overall poem. In this way, as to avoid confusion with the excellent advice offered by Becky Wood in getting students to find the ‘why’ of language choices in a text, I will refer to the overall why as the poem’s PURPOSE. Importantly, this is MY understanding of the poem’s intention. It is what I learn from the poem. It is how I see the poem fitting into my world.


The AQA spec states that ‘Context, where relevant, may also apply to literary context such as genre and also the context in which texts are engaged with by different audiences at different times. In the exam, in all cases, the question being asked will lead the student to write about context, so a student shouldn’t have to worry about hitting the AOs. In answering the question asked, they will be writing about context.’ The EDUQAS spec states something similar. Therefore, discussions about the effect on the reader themselves are valid context discussions.

The process of composing the speculations in the above table has two significant benefits: it not only satisfies the context component of the essay, avoiding ineffectual maundering by students in bolting on context conversations, but more importantly, it helps the students to engage in a deeper way with the poem, searching for the connections and links to their own world that ultimately help them make sense of it. The poems then do what they are supposed to do: affect the student.

Here’s how it looks in an essay comparing Mametz Wood with Excerpt from The Prelude. The introduction follows the advice offered here, and the section in bold is the possible PURPOSE of the poem.

Another poem that has nature as its dominant theme is Mametz Wood. In the poem Owen Sheers uses the idea of the earth purging itself of the physical remains of the 4000 Welsh soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme, but also the memories of the battle too. This process however, ironically provides the men with a voice for their absent tongues, as their anonymous sacrifice is finally honoured.  Sheers ostensibly implores us to ruminate on the brutality of war, its senseless violence and destruction, and the unnaturalness of youth dying. This bifurcation of the theme of nature: its power with the unnaturalness of war separates it from the presentation of nature as simply a powerful force in Excerpt from The Prelude (EFTP), an idea previously discussed. 

The full response above is here. A similar essay in terms of style, based on comparing To Autumn with Excerpt from The prelude is here.


I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English teaching resources


  1. Thanks Paul – we are doing the P and C anthology for AQA. I will take a few ideas fro here for my opening lessons. Thank you for your efforts.
    I like the tone of the AQA examiner’s comments about answering the question which will inevitably cover context.


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