Contextual reading

As a result of the weaknesses of close reading, more contextually based readings have emerged over the last 40 years, including ‘deconstructionism' and ‘post-colonial criticism'. It was felt that poets were not just disembodied spirits, but lived at a certain time in a certain culture, and their choice to write poetry, 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. So questions were asked like: How were the poems produced? How were they received? There are, in fact, all kinds of contexts, and we shall just look at some.

The Biographical

Students sometimes focus primarily on the life of the author they are studying, as it is easier to understand than the text! This is not what we are talking about. However, sometimes, if we know the circumstances in which a poet writes a poem, it helps us appreciate it more or interpret it better. With Donne this is difficult, as the poems are not dated. So we just don't know if A Nocturnall upon St Lucies Day was written just after his wife died, and therefore about her – as opposed to the sonnet Since She Whom I Lov'd, which says specifically it was about his dead wife, and so gives us a sort of date. Maybe it was written before, and was to the Countess of Bedford, who was also called Lucy, as was one of Donne's daughters.

  • What metaphysical poems have you read where you found it helpful to know the personal circumstances at the time of writing?
  • Do you think it would have helped you appreciate the Nocturnal more if you had known for sure the circumstances it was written in?

Since the poems are so much about ideas and general experiences, accounts of the lives and works of the various Metaphysical poets shed less light on the poems than might be the case with other poets at other times.

This is also true of psychological accounts, where the psyche of the poet is examined, largely through evidence either from the poems or other works. Very few attempts have been made to do this with the Metaphysicals, however.

Historical: Cultural and Political

Accounts which try to set the poetry against their cultural and political ideas and events are often called ‘historicist' readings. Certainly the seventeenth century is an intensely interesting century from a political point of view:

  • 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. When it comes to interpreting some of the tensions and about-turns in Donne or Herbert, this can be significant. Marvell's pastoralism can be seen as a retreat from the realities of political struggle, and so be judged much more negatively than a Christian or Platonic interpretation would suggest. On the other hand, the poetry could be seen, in historicism, as a move away from the courtly and aristocratic influence of the Elizabethans towards a more experience – and idea-based – bourgeois culture.

Historical: Literary

This is a is a more traditional historical approach. This is to trace literary influences and movements, and reactions to certain literary conventions. Thus, a good deal of Donne's early poetry could be seen as a reaction to Elizabethan poetic conventions. Young men, and especially angry young men, usually enjoy making fun of such conventions. In doing this, Donne could be seen as laying the groundwork for a new ‘convention', to which in turn the Augustans of the next century reacted.

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 at the beginning of our period and by its end it was the only translation in use, being read every Sunday in every church, when church-going was more or less compulsory. Where relevant, this guide has also talked about the Platonic sub-text.

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. This guide has therefore tried to help you to understand the range of religious beliefs held the poets under discussion, including mainstream Anglicanism, conversion from Puritanism to Catholicism, and Christian Platonism.

It is important to respect the fact that all the Metaphysical poets held some sort of Christian belief, most very sincerely. At least one was willing to give up his career for his beliefs. It is only as we understand such beliefs that we can appreciate the poetry fully, and allow it to speak to us. Some excellent critical work has been done over the last hundred years to illuminate those beliefs more precisely and say how current they were and how they were used in the poetry.

  • Has studying the Metaphysical poets made you interested in their period of history and their beliefs?

Feminist and Other

Surprisingly little work has been done by feminist criticism on the Metaphysical poets. It may be that feminists see the poets as irremediably male. Certainly Donne's early poetry strikes us like that. Sometimes the term ‘colonial' is now used, as one branch of modern criticism concerns itself with ‘postcolonial' attitudes, usually in terms of possession and power. Donne's imagery is often blatantly ‘colonial': the woman's body as his ‘New found land', for example. And as English colonialism was beginning at this period, the link is relevant from a historicist point of view.

Marvell, too, poses a challenge, especially when the paradise of his garden wants to exclude Eve from his Eden! Some of his other pastoral poetry suggests the negative force of the female sex. There is more work to be done here. Katherine Philips is the only woman poet who could be called ‘Metaphysical'.

  • Why so few women?
  • What about Donne's ‘male persuasive force'?


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 him or her from this to angle or that. Nor does it mean one angle is as good as another. Some approaches are more relevant to a particular writer than others. Some opinions and evaluations are better because they draw on a wider knowledge or a deeper understanding of that writer. And that comes back to hard work and a willingness to be more sympathetic to the writers than one's own agenda, and trying to feel through them and with them.

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