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2.4 From text to context - Advanced

Let’s explore how context influences meaning through analysing an epigram, a witty saying. Such brief, well-selected words were traditionally popular ways to sum up a story, particularly fables. Advertisements work in the same way as epigrams and the sayings in fables, using short sharp statements which become associated with similar contexts.

What is an epigram?
Epigrams are a kind of microform, not unlike a well-composed Tweet. An epigram is a poetic form that is highly economical and often has a didactic purpose or, in other words, a purpose that is extremely pointed. This activity begins with an epigram by the romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘What is an epigram?’

  • Using Coleridge’s epigram, and with a partner, determine the characteristics of an epigram. What does Coleridge say about its length, wit, integrity or ‘completeness of idea’?  Share with the class your answers to the question: what is a dwarfish whole?
  • Read the following epigrams and choose one that impresses you, for example your interest might be drawn by its relevance to its time or to your own context or how the witty use of language gives you an insight into its context.
    • Give your reasons.
    • Comment on any similarities and differences between this epigram and Coleridge’s epigram.


Thomas Alva Edison:
Discontent is the first necessity of progress.

Anaïs Nin
It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before, to test your limits, to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.

Catherine the Great
If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to be a horrible warning.

Oscar Wilde
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.

Ernest Hemingway
Chapter Heading
  For we have thought the longer thoughts
And gone the shorter way.
  And we have danced to devils’ tunes,
Shivering home to pray;
  To serve one master in the night,
Another in the day.

Ernest Hemingway also wrote a short story in six words.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Thomas Bastard
Age is deformed, youth unkind,
We scorn their bodies, they our mind.

Dorothy Porter
My wife is no one’s moon.
I am no one’s sun.

These epigrams can be found at the following sites:

How does context influence the reading of texts?

People understand texts in different ways because acts of reading and writing are shaped by contexts and contexts vary. Take, for example, the epigram below written by the eighteenth century English poet, Alexander Pope.

Epigram engraved on the Collar of a Dog
which I Gave to His Royal Highness

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

  • Read the epigram carefully and paraphrase it in your own words.
  • Write down any questions that arise from your reading that you would like answered. You could consider the meanings, any ambiguities, aspects of language or factual details you notice. For example, you might have questions about who His Royal Highness was or the identity of the ‘Iin the poem

Remember that acts of reading and writing are shaped by context. In this case:

  • Pope is the historical person who created the epigram.
  • He invents a persona.
  • In the poem there is an implied addressee, an imagined reader in the epigram.
  • We are the actual readers at this time.
  • Form a small group and try to answer your questions. If there are any which you are unable to answer, share with the class for discussion.
  • Work with a partner and create a diagram or mind-map that represents the complexities in reading the poem. You could consider:
    • Pope as an historical person.
    • the particular image of himself presented through the text.
    • the role of the ‘I’ of the poem.
    • the ‘you’ in the poem – king? members of the court?  
    • the actual readers
    • whether Pope wants the readers to be uncertain.

One text, many contexts
A single text can have many different contexts because it can be experienced in different times and places. The contexts of a text’s production, and reproduction, also shed light on its meaning. Pope’s epigram, although short, is complex and perhaps intentionally ambiguous in meaning. In groups of three, explore this diagram on context for ways to propose some possible meanings.

  • Working in your group, allocate one aspect of the framework to each member.
  • Working individually, devise some questions on the poem based on the aspect of context you have been given.
  • Share your questions with your group and discuss some possible answers to your questions about the meaning of the poem.

The possibility of meaning: ‘Whose dog are you?’
In this task you will prepare a brief presentation for the class that answers this focus question:

What are the possible meanings in the epigram when Pope asks I pray you sir, whose dog are you? 

Exploring the contexts associated with this epigram will help answer this question. As we’ve seen, the relationships between texts, composers and responders are multi-faceted. Broadly, context can be discussed in terms of:

  • historical, social and personal contexts
  • contexts of production (and reproduction)
  • contexts of reception. 

The image below is a representation of how context might influence Pope’s epigram.

  • Working with your group, use the diagram to help find answers to your question.
  • Propose some meanings responding to the focus question and deliver these to the class in a brief presentation.

Experimenting with text and context

This activity enables you to apply the concepts you have learned to an unfamiliar text.
John Donne was a poet, a politician and a cleric. In 1623 he fell dangerously ill and was expected to die. However, he recovered and during his convalescence wrote a series of devotions, the most famous of which is Meditation XVII – No Man is an Island, an extract of which is below. Donne’s devotions were published in 1624.

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

  • Read Meditation XVII so slowly that you feel you can hear its voice speaking to you.
  • Visualise the ideas in the text as though they form an art gallery. Describe or sketch what you can see.
  • After your class has discussed what No Man is an Island has to say about humanity, consider
    • the problem it presents and
    • the answers to this problem it offers.
  • Identify sentences, phrases or words in the text, if any, that are significant for you.
    You might want to consider:
    • What aspects of the world depicted in Meditation XVII resonate with the contemporary world
    • The values and attitudes presented by the author and their relevance.
  • Select epigrams from the text that could align with one of the scenarios in the texts from the Centre for Road Safety website
  • Transform these epigrams into statements to be published on a micro-blogging site (for example Twitter) in support of one of the advertisements drawn from the Centre for Road Safety website.


This is a drawing of John Donne in his shroud, the sheet in which he was buried. He commissioned this drawing of himself a few years after writing his devotions and a few months before his death. He kept the picture by his bedside for the remainder of his life to contemplate on the transience of life. It is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

This behaviour and attitude to death indicates that Donne’s times and values were very different to our own, despite the similarities in values we can see from his words.

  • What does Donne’s attitude towards death reveal about his values?
  • To many of us his attitude towards death seems strange, yet we are familiar with the sentiments he expresses in his mediation. Does this inconsistency make you question whether we can fully appreciate the effects of differences in context?
    Give reasons for your answer.


Reflecting on context

The inscription below the portrait translates as: may this shroud of the body be the shroud of the soul, the shroud of Jesus. Like the texts on the Centre for Road Safety site, the extract from Donne’s meditation brings together ideas of community and mortality. However, we do not usually consider the advertisements in the context of Donne’s devotional writing.

  • To what extent does Donne’s meditation and the context in which he wrote it affect your response to any one of the advertisements?
  • What have you learned about how understanding the relationship of a text and its context might influence the ways we respond to other texts?

Last update: 24th January 2019