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?
  • Does the reader need knowledge or understanding of significant events to understand the poem’s real meaning or message?

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.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

Heaney was brought up a Catholic, but he attended a small rural primary school where both Catholics and Protestants were educated together.

This poem was published in his first poetry collection - Death of a Naturalist - in 1969. It reflected the growing conflict between Catholics and Protestants in 1960s Northern Ireland.

Belfast shipyards

The collection was published just before the beginning of the Troubles. In hindsight, the violent anti-Catholic attitude of the Protestant subject of the poem is quite prescient.

The Belfast shipyards were known for favouring Protestants in their recruitment policies, which explains why Heaney shows the poem’s subject as working in the shipbuilding industry.

The portrayal in the poem is almost a caricature of the tough, bigoted Protestant shipyard worker.

Heaney said that in in retrospect the poem should not have been titled Docker, as this was one of the rougher jobs more likely to have been done by a Catholic. Protestants were more likely to have had the better jobs in actual shipbuilding.