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Social, cultural & historical contexts
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If you are studying English Literature, one of the things you must do is to “relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts and literary traditions”. So the first question is, what does this mean? To understand this, it is important to recognise that texts, such as poems, are not created in a vacuum but are the product of many influences that affect the ways in which writers write and the ways in which we read and interpret their work. Becoming aware of this background information can help you to understand and appreciate the poetry texts you read and help you form your responses more effectively.

The ‘social, historical and cultural’ contexts can consist of a variety of factors. Here
are some things you could consider in placing a text in ‘context’:

  • the life or biography of the poet
  • other works that the poet has written
  • the historical period in which that poem was written
  • the place or event that gave rise to the poem
  • the ways in which the language used in the poem reflects the period in which it was written
  • the particular culture within which the poem was written
  • the social background of the poet or the theme or setting of the poem

Although any or all of these features can be important when writing about a poem, the poem itself should be at the centre of your discussion. Students often go wrong by writing more about the historical background or the life of the poet than about the poem itself.

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