On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

From Academic Kids

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer is a sonnet by English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), written in October 1816. It tells of the author's astonishment at reading the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer as freely translated by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman.

   On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

 Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
 And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
 Round many western islands have I been
 Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
 Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
 That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne; 
 Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
 Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
 He star'd at the Pacific – and all his men
 Look'd at each other with a wild surmise –
 Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The poem has become an often-quoted classic, cited to demonstrate the emotional power of a great work of art. See epiphany.

Keats' generation was familiar enough with the polished translations by John Dryden and Alexander Pope, which gave Homer an urbane gloss akin to Virgil, but in blank verse or heroic couplets. Chapman's vigorous and earthy paraphrase (1616) was put before Keats by his friend from schooldays at Enfield, Charles Cowden Clarke, and they sat up together till daylight to read it: "Keats shouting with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination. At ten o'clock the next morning, Mr. Clarke found the sonnet on his breakfast-table." When this poem was first published, critics drew attention to the fact that Keats was not classically educated, depending on a translation of Homer rather than being able to read the Greek original. Keats was deeply upset at being rejected for reasons of social class, but this did not stop him using classical themes in his later work.

Of the many islands of the Aegean, the one which bards most in fealty owe to Apollo, leader of the inspiring Muses, is Delos, the sacred island that was Apollo's birthplace. The island-dotted Aegean lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean; thus when Keats calls these western islands, he tacitly contrasts them with the East Indies, the goal that drew adventurers like doughty Cortéz and Balboa to the New World, an unspoken image that hovers behind the text. Submerged imagery is typical of Keats' rich and succinct technique.

The "new planet" was Uranus, discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, Astronomer Royal to George III, the first planet unknown to astronomers of Antiquity. A new world in the heavens.

"Darién" is in the east of Panama. And, of course, the alert reader notices, hopefully afterwards, when the poem has made its full effect and the book is closed, that it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa, not Hernán Cortés. Keats had been reading William Robertson's History of America and apparently confused two scenes there described: Balboa's discovery of the Pacific and Cortés's first view of the Valley of Mexico. The Balboa passage: "At length the Indians assured them, that from the top of the next mountain they should discover the ocean which was the object of their wishes. When, with infinite toil, they had climbed up the greater part of the steep ascent, Balboa commanded his men to halt, and advanced alone to the summit, that he might be the first who should enjoy a spectacle which he had so long desired. As soon as he beheld the South Sea stretching in endless prospect below him, he fell on his knees, and lifting up his hands to Heaven, returned thanks to God, who had conducted him to a discovery so beneficial to his country, and so honourable to himself. His followers, observing his transports of joy, rushed forward to join in his wonder, exultation, and gratitude" (Vol. III). Like a true poet, John Keats remembered the moment, the image, not the historical detail: like Keats, the reader should not be confused by the facts.

This sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet. After the image has been set up in the first eight lines, comes an abrupt turn in the train of thought— "Yet..."— which Italians called the volta ("jump").

Trivia

The poem/novel Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov contains the following whimsical reference to Keats's poem:

... and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman's (http://www.baseball-reference.com/c/chapmbe01.shtml) Homer, thumbtacked to the door.

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