Why should we bother with context? Surely a piece of art, whether it be a poem, a symphony or a sculpture, should arrest and intrigue its audience by its own existence? By being read, or listened to, or gazed at? The purists would say not. The work has to stand on its own feet and speak for itself. If it needs a bagful of context to be understood, then it isn’t really a very successful piece of art.
I have some sympathy for this point of view. If we really do need a history lesson and an explanation of social mores in a distant time in order to understand a sonnet, is that sonnet really worth reading? If we are reading it in order to understand how people thought at a certain point in history, then yes. But don’t we read literature primarily for its own interest and our enjoyment?
And yet it must be said that an awareness of different contexts can illuminate a text. It can throw things into relief which we might have missed, it can explain puzzles and give us insight. But it is really important to begin with the text itself, and let the important contexts emerge from its reading. I have seen teachers, very frequently, begin a new text with a Powerpoint presentation about the life and historical background of the writer and their book before even a page is turned. And context can kill. I have read hundreds of essays that were meant to be about Thomas Hardy’s poetry, but proved to be about Thomas Hardy’s wife, Emma. Similarly, I have read hundreds of essays, not on Wordsworth’s poetry, but on Wordsworth’s relationship with his sister Dorothy and nature. It is sometimes very difficult to get students to write about the actual words these writers wrote because they have been drilled more fully in the lives these writers led.
It does seem to happen particularly badly with poets, and perhaps the poet who suffers the most from this is Sylvia Plath. In some ways it is natural with a confessional poet. However, as literature students, we should be primarily concerned with how Plath expresses her concerns in her choices of striking language and images, how she arranges them on the page, the effects they have on us as readers. This article is an interesting one, urging readers to move away from considering Plath’s death to a greater focus on her life, though I’d prefer a greater focus on her poetry.
So start with the text. Reading Tennessee Williams’ stage directions for A Streetcar Named Desire and noting the mix of physical set in the ‘rickety outside stairs’, colour in the sky’s ‘particularly tender blue’, and sound in the ‘tinny piano being played with infatuated fluency’, you’re already getting a taste of his plastic theatre. That’s only taken further with the addition of scent in ‘the warm breath of the brown river beyond’ and mood with ‘lyricism’ which ‘gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay.’ We are clearly moving beyond conventional stage design – how does the designer create ‘raffish charm’? So we have a blending of different theatrical techniques of presentation with an aspiration that the blending will be evocative and emotive. We have an understanding of Williams’ theatrical methods from a reading of the text.
Take Wilfred Owen, whose lines from ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ communicate the conditions for soldiers in World War One more effectively than any history lesson:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Read more about approaches to context in this blogpost from the English and Media Centre.
And yet it can be interesting to read how writers respond to the events around them. I wrote a year ago about how political events had been explored in literature and mentioned Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! He is a writer who filters the effects of history and politics on people’s lives and his latest is Bourneville, which takes a wide sweep through the 20th century in England. There is an interesting interview with him here, and a review of the novel here.