Context discussions for EDUQAS Poems


  3. WAR 


The era is characterised not by romance, but by a desire to return to the ideals of Roman times, where creativity and nature were highly regarded. The era is mostly a reaction to the dominance of the industrial revolution at the end of the 1700’s, a revolution that introduced mechanisation and mass machinery. The advantages to society were abundant, however there was great exploitation of people at the time as laws were not in place; there was no precedent. Pollution, enormous wealth disparity, and a bowing down to all things science characterised the time, and poets and other artists at the time were concerned about this, and produced art to counter.     

‘London’ by William Blake 

Written in 1792 

The poem describes a journey around London, offering a glimpse of what the speaker sees as the terrible conditions faced by the inhabitants of the city. Child labour, the ‘corrupt’ Church and prostitution are all explored in the poem. It ends with a vision of the terrible consequences to be faced as a result of sexually transmitted disease. As a man and poet, Blake was highly critical of what he described as society’s disassociation with itself. He saw life being compromised by trivialities. He was self-educated and believed the educated class that dominated philosophy at the time was pretentious. He studied art throughout his life and drew images for all his works.  

The poem is the first we study from the Romantic era, and it’s the perfect example that Romantic era poems are not about romance; more so they are about the love of nature, creativity, and the human spirit. London explores the demise of these things in the height of the industrial revolution. The poem was written in 1792, shortly after the French Revolution, a revolution that gave hope to citizens tired of political corruption. ‘London’ is such a strong critique of the city and what it has become that the poem could be seen as Blake almost provoking action by the people. The hapless soldier reference is also a link to George III’s stubbornness in leaving the American War of Independence battle when everyone knew it was futile to continue. 

Blake is considered to be one of the fathers of the Romantic era, alongside Wordsworth and Colleridge.  

Excerpt from The Prelude by William Wordsworth 

Written in 1799 and published in 1804 (but revised several times as Wordsworth aged). 

The prelude is a long, autobiographical poem, showing the spiritual growth of the speaker and how he comes to terms with who he is, and his place in nature and the world. Wordsworth was inspired by memories of events and visits to different places, explaining how they affected him. He described The Prelude as ”a poem on the growth of my own mind” with ”contrasting views of Man, Nature, and Society”. 

In the poem, Wordsworth recounts his childhood experience of skating on a frozen lake at night.  Being alone with nature had a great effect on him. Essentially, the poem explores the moment when he realises that the world doesn’t revolve around himself, that he is a small cog in a much larger wheel. In fact, the sense of melancholy at the end relates to us all as we all feel a sense of loss when moving from childhood to adulthood; having to go out in the world on your own is daunting, and the poem acknowledges this. It’s in one long stanza to possibly suggest the blending of the memories and also that passing of time is short.  

‘She Walks in Beauty’ by George Gordon Lord Byron 

Written in 1813 

Byron is believed to have been inspired to write the poem after seeing a woman with very good looks at a fashionable London party. It has been claimed that the lady was in mourning and dressed in a black gown. 

Byron had many stormy personal relationships. He was famously described as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ and had a reputation for being lascivious, after his first affair with the older, married, high society socialite Caroline Lamb. He then had an affair with his stepsister Augusta, a relationship which produced a child named Medora who died at just five years of age. To escape these scandals, he married Anne Milbanke, a marriage that produced Ada Lovelace, one of the first ever computer scientists and good friend and associate of Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin (brilliant links to the Science course), the great Charles Dickens (obvious links), and Charles Babbage (went to school in Totnes), the man closely associated with inventing the calculator, and the concept of the computer. But the marriage failed, and Anne hated Byron, and she refused to allow Byron any connection to Ada; this forced his departure from England to Italy, but it was at the height of his fame in London in 1814 when he saw the character in his poem at a party. The character in the poem is Anne Willmott, Byron’s cousin’s wife. But when we read the poem we realise there is no sexuality at all in its content, and when we realise that Byron was supposedly sexually abused on two occasions in his childhood, we develop a greater understanding of his issues with relationships and the poem’s content takes on a deeper significance. We have a sense of empathy for Byron, knowing that having led an obviously difficult and troubled existence, he was still able to produce a poem of such incredible purity 

Ozymandias by Percy Shelley 

Written in 1817 

The poem explores the question of what happens to tyrant kings when they die. 

Ramesses (the Greeks called him Ozymandias) lived to be ninety-six years old, ruled as Pharoah for 66 years, had over 200 wives, ninety-six sons and sixty daughters, most of whom he outlived. He was a ruthless egomaniac. The poem is metaphorical, with Ozymandias potentially being England’s King George III. However, Shelley was careful not to be so direct in criticising him, because he was previously kicked out of Oxford for atheism, and so was reluctant to get into further trouble in this poem that mocks the king. King George III was considered to be a tyrant, warmonger and egomaniac himself; this is why the poem is written in a 3rd person perspective.  

Shelley eloped with Mary Godwin, daughter of the famous writer William Godwin, when she was just 16. This relationship was undoubtedly happening when Shelley was married to his wife. It may have been the cause of the wife’s suicide. Percy and Mary moved to Italy, where they spent a summer with Byron, and where the now Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Shelley died from drowning when he was 30, and a book of poems by Keats was found on him.  

‘To Autumn’ by John Keats 

Written in 1819 

The poem reflects on mankind’s relationship with a particular time of year. He wrote the poem inspired by a walk he had taken through the countryside; it is, therefore, a highly personal response. 

Keats initially trained as a surgeon but gave it up to write poetry. Six months after completing To Autumn, he experienced the first signs of the tuberculosis that would end his life. In the poem it is almost as though the medically-trained poet has understood that his life would soon end, and he is preparing himself for death. Keats died in 1821 aged just 25. The poem is almost an acceptance of death, with lots of references to positive things about the season of Autumn (season of death).   

Keats’ father died when he was 9, and his mother remarried and sent the children to live with their grandmother. The mother died 6 years later of consumption (tuberculosis). This detachment effectively made him the parent to his 2 brothers and his sister. This fact is important because he became very close to his siblings, and the death of Tom, his brother to consumption (tuberculosis) affected him deeply. The exhortation of living in the moment is then quite cool. 


The era is represented by 2 women, both of whom suffered immensely at the hands of a male dominated society. They both became recluses as a result.  

Sonnet 43 by Elizabeth Browning 

Written in 1850 

Browning was raised by her wealthy highly religious yet tyrannical father who was a slave owner in The Caribbean. She became averse to such a trade, and she distanced herself from him. She lost her inheritance from this separation. She was very close to her brother whom became ill. She travelled to Torquay to help him recuperate, but he drowned whilst swimming. All of these events caused a great depression to overcome Elizabeth, and she became a recluse.  

Whilst a recluse, she began to write, and her letters were seen by Robert Browning, himself a famous poet. A friendship formed, and turned into love. The poem is a feel good story: from immense woe to love. Elizabeth married Robert, and they lived happily until their deaths.   

Imperceptibly as Grief by Emily Dickinson 

Written in @1850 

Dickinson was brought up in a very strict Calvinist family (religion). She had to frequent people’s homes all the time when she was young to help her father preach. She grew tired of this and as an adult denounced religion, which infuriated her father, and led to the end of their relationship. She may also have been in love with her brother’s wife, Susan, but unable to do anything about her feelings. Both of these factors may have led her to become a recluse. It is in this context that she learns to accept the way things turn out, setting a mood of acquiescence in the poem. When one good thing ends, a bad thing takes its place, and vice versa – balance is the meaning of life.  

WAR – poems from 1900 to modern day 

‘A Wife in London’ by Thomas Hardy 

Written in 1900 

The poem describes a wife receiving news of her husband who has died in fighting in the Boer War (1899-1902). The war was the reaction by the Afrikaans to the British Empire’s push into yet another colony to exploit its resources. 

Hardy wrote much of his poetry about death and war and the lives of soldiers in the 19th Century, and in particular the effects of war on the men and their families at home. The poem then is anti-war, but goes about it a unique and creative way, focusing on the effects on others as opposed to the soldiers. 

Hardy was a famous prose writer before he became a famous poet. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure are his most popular titles. Because most of his poems centre on the theme of death, he was, considered to be a very pessimistic man.  

‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke 

Written in 1914.  

At the beginning of the war, many were still quite naïve about warfare—dying in battle was seen as a noble, heroic thing. At the time they weren’t concerned with machine guns, mustard gas or disease. Nearly 20 million died in World War 1, and 20 million went missing. The poem could either be propaganda, or an attempt to appease the grief of families who would inevitably lose a loved one, to make their deaths not seem like a waste. Brooke’s poems were well received by the mainstream media at the time, a media that had most definitely pushed propaganda onto the public, propaganda that unfairly distorted the realities and truths of the war, its causes, and its results. Brooke was from a very wealthy family, connected to high-ranking officers in the war, many of whom never saw real battle, but sent men to their deaths, and so his writings were likely motivated to assist the distorted vision of war. His poems are still used to this day by Royal Navy.  

Brooke himself died while serving in the Royal Navy in 1915, but it was from a mosquito bite that became infected, and he died of sepsis in April of 1915. 

Prior to the first moon landing in 1969, William Safire prepared a speech for U.S. PresidentRichard Nixon to give in case of disaster.[1] The last line of the prepared address intentionally echoes a similar line from the poem.[2] (“For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”) 

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen 

Written in 1917 

Owen is recounting his fist hand experiences of fighting in Word War 1 in this poem. He describes the dreadful conditions of the battlefront and the death of a fellow soldier from a mustard gas attack. It is an honest portrayal of war, opposite to pro-war, patriotic ideas of the time. The poem is totally anti-war, and makes war a very inglorious business. Owen was injured in the war and was sent home to recover. It is during this time that he wrote some of his most critical war poems, and became well known for them alongside other poets such as Sassoon. Once recovered, he was reassigned to battle. 

Owen was ironically killed in action, when the war was practically over. His mother received news of his death just as the end of the war was announced. He ironically dedicated the poem to a poet called Jessie Pope, who wrote poetry at the time encouraging the enlisting of soldiers to the war effort. Owen hated her.  

‘The Manhunt’ by Simon Armitage 

Written in the 1990’s.  

The poem was written after having a discussion with Eddie Beddoes’ wife Laura regarding her husbands’ physical and mental injuries endured after serving as a peace-keeper in Bosnia. It describes her experience of her husbands’ return and the effect his injuries have had on their relationship. It’s one of the 1st poems ever to discuss PTSD. The poem is anti-war, but goes about it in a less direct way compared to Dulce for example.  

It was a part of a Channel 4 documentary, ‘Forgotten Heroes: The Not Dead’, where the lives of soldiers were examined. In the programme, this poem is read by Laura, to highlight the truth war can bring. The causes of the Bosnian war are disputed, with NATO claiming that ethnic cleansing was carried out by the Serbian forces resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. However, an independent commission into the war found there to be no mass deaths. This led to speculation that the war was not as noble as first purported, but propaganda and an excuse for the dismantling of Yugoslavia for economic reasons. This has significance as the soldiers were essentially fighting for a lie, a situation that could have psychologically affected them; a situation analogous to the Vietnam war. 

Mametz Wood’ by Owen Sheers 

Written in 2005 

Mametz Wood was the scene of fierce fighting during the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of World War 1. The battle lasted 10 months. There were 300,000 casualties. The poem describes the battle field in modern times, with soldier’s bodies being uncovered by farmers tending the land.  

The poem explores how war swallows up the lives of men, effectively making them anonymous. The poem tells us how the men’s lives are finally honoured. Sheers was involved in a documentary film project about two Welsh writers, David Jones and Wyn Griffiths. They served with the 38th Welsh Division and both fought at Mametz Wood. While Sheers was in France, a previously unknown grave was uncovered. It contained the bodies of 20 Allied soldiers, hastily buried but with arms interlinked as described in the poem. Sheers has said that when he saw the photograph of the grave, he knew it was an image that would stay with him and that it was a subject he would want to write about. This poem is the result, surfacing some time later, just as, he says, ‘elements of the battle are still surfacing… years later.’ 

Another contextual discussion can be based around the idea that the men were told to walk and not run as they emerged onto the battlefield. This absurd command is indicative of some of the ridiculous decisions that military officers made at the time (Gallipoli is another example), and this coupled with the fact that 300,000 soldiers died to gain only 100m of territory make the whole situation seem futile and shockingly wasteful.   


‘Afternoons’ by Philip Larkin 

Written in 1959 

Time, death, chance, and choice have been identified by critics as the leading themes in Larkin’s poetry. He focused on disappointments in life, the pressures of society, the desire to escape pressures together, the fear of isolation and aging. 

‘Afternoons’, like a number of Philip Larkin’s other poems, treats the theme of the passing of youth and the setting-in of middle age. But rather than focusing on his own middle age (Larkin was in his mid-thirties when he wrote the poem, in 1959), Larkin examines the lives of others, analysing the existence of a group of young mothers. He warns us that becoming domesticated leads to a loss of spirit, and loss of identity. The advent of TV in this time exacerbated Larkin’s worries. Living in cold, Hull may also have influenced some of the tone of his work.  

‘Hawk Roosting’ 

Written in 1960 

Hughes’s earlier poetic work is rooted in nature and, in particular, the innocent savagery of animals, an interest from an early age. The poem is written from the first person narrative of a hawk, who is at the top of the food chain in his wood. It discusses power. We could interpret the poem as literally being about a hawk, or the hawk could be a metaphor for a person in absolute power– a dictator. The Nazi party’s emblem was a hawk type figure. It could ironically be about Hughes himself as he is believed to have beaten his wife on several occasions.  

‘Death of a Naturalist’ by Seamus Heaney 

Written in 1966 

Heaney is a poet fascinated with nature and how humans react within it. He was apolitical (non-political), but his poems still contain valuable messages in them.  

The poem is both a description of Heaney’s experience with nature as a boy, and a metaphor for the loss of his childhood innocence, as he looks back at his youthful naivety. He is fascinated by the frogspawn and tadpoles of the flax-dam’, but becomes repulsed by a horde of croaking frogs in their maturity. It could also be a poem about change, and a warning to not be so adamant (sure) about things because you could change your mind as you get older. The sudden tearing away from youthful innocence could also be metaphoric of Heaney having to grow up very quickly with the death of his brother, and also potentially because of the violence happening with the IRA in Ireland.  

‘Valentine’ by Carol Anne Duffy 

Written in 1993 

Carol Ann Duffy wrote Valentine after a radio producer asked her to write an original poem for St. Valentine’s Day. She is a fierce feminist. She became the 1st British female poet laureate in 2009.   

Duffy’s poem is reminiscent of a poem by 16th century poet John Donne, who approached ordinary objects in original and surprising ways. The multi-layered complexity of the onion represents a real relationship and is used as an extended metaphor throughout. The poet seems to be uninterested by the usual ‘superficial’ representations of love, and instead tries to portray a more realistic symbol, because love can be painful and hurtful. In that way, the poem serves as a type of warning. 

‘Living Space’ by Imtiaz Dharker 

Written in 1997. 

Imtiaz Dharker was born in Pakistan and grew up in Scotland. Her poetry deals with themes of identity, the role of women in contemporary society and the search for meaning. She draws on her multi-cultural experience in her work. She works to raise awareness of issues in other countries. Dharker’s intimate knowledge of Mumbai is evident in this poem. The slums of Mumbai are where people migrate from all over India in the hope of a better life, and the poem explores the idea that optimism can thrive in adversity. The poem then is really about 1st world pettiness not really being worth wasting too much time over: there are more important things going on in the world.  

‘I don’t want to have to define myself in terms of location or religion. In a world that seems to be splitting itself into narrower national and religious groups, sects, castes, subcastes, we can go on excluding others until we come down to a minority of one’.   

Cozy Apologia’ by Rita Dove 

Written in 1999. 

Waiting for a storm to hit, the speaker thinks about her partner. She pictures him as a knight in shining armour, protecting her. He’s a vivid contrast, she thinks, to the ‘worthless’ boys she used to date. She’s embarrassed by how content their cosy, ordinary lives have made them.   

Rita Dove is married to fellow-writer Fred Viebahn and the poem is a tribute to him. It is set against the arrival of Hurricane Floyd, a powerful storm which hit the east coast of the USA in 1999. This factual, real-life context supports the idea this is an autobiographical poem. The poem mostly explores the idea that society has unrealistic expectations of what love actually is: it’s not Romeo and Juliet style, full of unrealistic passion and intensity, all ideas perpetuated (driven) by the media and superficial culture. It’s ok to be just content.  

Rita Dove was the first African American to be awarded the Poet Laureate in America. She also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. 

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

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