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Understanding Poets’ Backgrounds

Many courses, such as IB English, require us to not just read poems but also understand the context in which they were written. Why is that important? Surely, the words on the page are the significant thing, so what else can we understand by learning about the poet and their background?

Knowing a poet’s historical background is often essential to understanding the deeper meanings of poems. Without knowing this, we can miss significant themes and messages in the work. Take the poems of Lewis Carroll for example. The author of Alice in Wonderland was also an accomplished poet whose works include My Fairy, A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky, and Brother and Sister. During the era in which he lived, children’s wellbeing and protection was not considered important. Victorian adults expected children to be independent and mature. Many poor children started working as young as four. Carroll’s work often features children having fantastical and occasionally nonsensical adventures. This is the opposite of what Victorian society expected of childhood. People reading his poetry nowadays can see that the enjoyable childhoods he writes about serve as a commentary on the hard lives of children at the time. By learning about the Victorian era alongside Carroll’s poems, we have a better idea of the hidden meanings of his work.

A poet’s personal life experiences are also integral to the content, themes and style of their work. Elizabeth Bishop is a famous female poet known for her descriptive and vivid writing style. Her poems include Crusoe in England, Arrival at Santos, and One Art. Besides being a talented poet, Bishop was also a skilled painter. Some say that her writing is very still, just like images in a painting, as she often describes unmoving scenes. Bishop also travelled widely throughout much of her life. This is very visible in the themes and the imagery in her poems. By learning more about Bishop’s personal life, we see how the content and style of her work is influenced by her own experiences; thus we are able to better decode and appreciate her poems.

These are just two examples of why it is important to understand a poet’s background. So the next time you see a new poem, try to read up on its poet as well. You might just get a new interesting point of view!