Contextual reading

As a result of the perceived problems of close reading (see Critical approaches to literature: Close reading), more contextually based readings have emerged over the last 40 years, including ‘deconstructionism' and ‘post-colonial criticism'. It was felt that authors were not just disembodied spirits, but lived at a certain time in a certain culture, and their choice to write, and in the way they did, was often influenced by factors outside themselves that they did not necessarily make explicit either to themselves or to their readers. Contextual reading asks:

  • How were the poems produced?

  • How were they received?

There are, in fact, all kinds of contexts; here are just some.

The Biographical

If students know the circumstances in which a writer creates literature, it helps them appreciate it more or interpret it better.

Biographical accounts of the lives and works of the various writers may shed light on their output, e.g.,:

  • The circumstances of a writer creating a particular text

  • Any letters they may have written about it

  • Any journal entries

  • Anything they may have seen or done that may have caused its production.

Such things can often offer vital clues to interpretation. However, we always have to remember that the art is not the same as the life, and, ultimately, it is the art at which we are looking.

This is also true of psychological accounts of authors, where their psyche is examined, largely through evidence either from their work or other works.

Historical: Cultural and Political

Accounts which try to set literature against the cultural and political ideas and events of the day are often called ‘historicist' readings.

Any author is born into a particular era of history.

  • Does knowing something of the values, culture, intellectual and religious debates of the time, help us to understand them? Answers to this vary widely

  • Does social class affect the values and tastes of an author?

How does perception of 17th century poetry change for example, when it is set against the context of the following:

  • A Civil War was fought

  • A king was beheaded

  • A Commonwealth without a sovereign was instituted

  • The Army was democratised

  • There were periods of tolerance followed by periods of repression and persecution

  • The Puritans decided the wilderness of North America offered more than their native land.

Surely such events must have influenced the form and matter of contemporary poetry?

Critics who have tried to show this have certainly come up with interesting insights. Some critics who come from a Marxist or left-wing political position may downplay religious experience or view it as reactionary and negative.

The Literary tradition

Here the emphasis is on the history of literature, tracing literary influences and movements, and reactions to certain literary conventions.

For any author, major questions are:

  • To what extent did their work derive from the work of predecessors?

  • How influenced were they by contemporary movements?

  • When their output was published, how did they influence later writers?

A good deal of a writer's output may be seen as a reaction to previous conventions. Often authors enjoy making fun of such conventions, creating a new style to which in turn future writers may react. Within the context of literary tradition arises the question of how innovative a writer may be. This can only be answered by looking at previous and also contemporary authors. Were they doing the same sort of thing or not? It's always quite difficult to see exactly how unusual a pioneer is if later people have all copied them.

Literary history, however, tends to keep genres separate, unlike cultural historicism. So the fact that Shakespeare was writing his dark comedies and tragedies at exactly the same time as Donne was writing his poetry gets forgotten. The dark melancholy feelings in, say Good Friday. 1613 are echoed in Jacobean tragedy, and historicists would try to find cultural reasons for this. Literary historians tend not to.

What literary history does well is to establish subtexts, and there is a recent branch of criticism called inter-textual criticism that really focuses on this. It is important to include the Bible as subtext as well as source of imagery. The most influential Bible translation, the Authorised Version, was published in 1611 and soon became the only translation in use, every Sunday, in every church, when church-going was more or less compulsory. The influence of classical learning, which was part of an educated person's knowledge base is another area of investigation.


The socio-economic, or political approach would include Marxist and feminist readings of texts. Writers who do not engage directly with their society are often less attractive to political criticism. Much political criticism tends to look at the total œuvre of a writer, including diaries, journals, sermons and so on, to derive the class-based consciousness out of which they write.

Religious and Philosophical

The opposite to the Marxist historicism that demotes or blames religion, is the contextual study that tries to establish what the religious and philosophical ideas, beliefs and experiences were for the writers. Different approaches to Christianity and knowledge of classical philosophy are important in interpreting these poems but may not be familiar to everyone today.

One branch of modern criticism concerns itself with ‘postcolonial' attitudes, usually in terms of possession and power. Imagery can be blatantly ‘colonial': if for example a woman's body is described as a man's ‘New found land', for example.

Psycho-analytical criticism

These studies look at a writer's psychological state. This is not the same as non-contextual studies that look at the author's mind as the organising principle in their poetry:

  • The non-contextual is only looking at the writer's mind as the producer of particular texts: what sort of imagery did it typically favour, for example?

  • A psychological approach will look at the writer's life as a whole, and the influences on his or her behaviour, predispositions, complexes and so on, taking their literary output as only part of the evidence.

The danger with such an approach is that it is reductionist. It ‘reduces' the author to fit the theory, so that anything they say is necessarily psychological first and foremost, rather than a spontaneous utterance of enjoyment, or an expression of belief. All individuals have a psychology, just as they all have beliefs, can all use words, and live at a certain time and place. All these things cannot be reduced to just one aspect from which the rest derive.  


At the end of the day, all good critical approaches have to have evidence, and evidence requires a thorough knowledge of the text, not a quick trawling through a few critical essays or books. Usually, a great writer is bigger than any single approach, but that doesn't mean refusing to look at them from this angle or that angle. Nor does it mean that one angle or idea is as good as another. Some approaches are more relevant to a particular writer than others. Some opinions and evaluations are better than others because they draw on a wider knowledge or a deeper understanding of that writer. And that comes from hard work and a willingness to be sympathetic to the writer and trying to feel and think through them and with them.

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