Context

The context in which a poem was written can sometimes tell you more about its themes, message and meaning.

Some questions you might ask include:

  • are aspects of the poet’s life reflected in the poem?
  • is the time or place in which it was written reflected in the poem?

You will need to research the poet’s background to discover answers to these questions. But if you do write about a poem and its context, be careful to include only details that reveal something about the poem.

Context of 'Exposure'

 Photo of British soldiers in a trench in 1914
'Exposure' gives a first hand depiction of life in the trenches

World War One began in 1914 and at first it was predicted that it would end swiftly. However, as both sides dug trenches across France and Belgium, the opposing armies became locked in a stalemate that neither side could break. By the winter of 1917 both sides had sustained massive losses and extreme cold weather made the misery even worse. It was said to be the coldest winter in living memory. The soldiers suffered from hypothermia and frostbite and many developed trench foot, a crippling disease caused by feet being wet and cold and confined in boots for days on end.

Owen and his fellow soldiers were forced to lie outside in freezing conditions for two days. He wrote: “We were marooned in a frozen desert. There was not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death… The marvel is we did not all die of cold.”

It was against this background that Owen wrote Exposure.

Owen and a number of other poets of the time used their writing to inform people back in Britain about the horrors of the war and in particular about life on the front line. The picture they painted contradicted the scenes of glory portrayed in the British press. Exposure is a particularly hard-hitting example of this.

Owen had joined the army in 1915 but was hospitalised in May 1917 suffering from ‘shell shock’ (today known as PTSD – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In hospital Owen met the already established war poet Siegfried Sassoon who, recognising the younger man’s talent, encouraged him to continue writing.

Owen eventually returned to the war but was tragically killed just days before the war ended; he was just 26. He is now regarded as one of Britain’s greatest war poets.

More about commenting on context.