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John Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a sonnet in which he writes of the impact of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer. Reading Chapman’s Homer did more than spark Keats’ intellect. Chapman’s Homer caused a massive explosion in Keats’ mind which allowed him to write as John Middleton Murray says “one of the finest sonnets in the English language” (Murray). In this paper I will show that Keats writes the poem ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer after he had an epiphany as a result of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer.
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George Chapman was an English poet, dramatist, and translator during the Renaissance. He is most remembered as the poet who translated the works of Homer. He was born in Hitchin around 1559. Chapman died in poverty in 1634, but left a wealthy estate of writing for all to inherit.
John Keats, born in 1795, was an English Poet. He published three books of poetry. Keats lost both parents at a very young age. Keats was not born into aristocracy, he was not rich, and therefore was not very well educated. Most critics did not consider Keats to be credible poet. Because he was poor he could not marry the woman he loved and only achieved fame after his death in 1821. Andrew Motion of the Richmond Review writes: “The story of John Keats is one of the best known lives in literary history. His working class origins, poor critical reception and tragically early death constitute a perfect blueprint for a popular archetype of the Romantic Poet” (Motion).
The poem “On Looking into Chapman’s Homer” was written after Keats and his friend Charles Cowden Clarke was given a copy of Chapman’s Homer. Michael R. Richards states: “Keats’s sonnet is a criticism in miniature, a capsulated criticism very much in tune with almost all the Romantic critics” (Richards). Evidently, Keats used the poem as a vehicle to reveal the hidden treasure of literary wealth regarding Homer and his literary works that was not mimed by Pope.
Keats uses the Italian (Sonnet) or Petrarchan form of the sonnet to structure his poem. The octet, which is the first eight lines of the poem, carries an abba abba rhyme scheme. The next six lines of the poem, the sestet, have a rhyme scheme of cdcdcd. As expected, line 9 of the poem introduces a change in the poem, formally known as a Volta, commonly called a turn. In the octet, Keats speaks of travels he experienced vicariously through his reading. Keats’ vivid imagination allows him to enter into the pages of the books and the words were as sparks causing his intellect to catch fire. In concert with the theme of Petrarchan sonnets, Keats uses the octet to introduce the problem when he writes:
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. (5-8)
First, it is fitting to look at the words used in the poem. Keats uses language that depicts expansive travel, major discovery, and an enriching sense of satisfaction. Using words like “much”, “states”, “kingdoms”, “many”, and “islands”, he successfully communicates that his travel was plentiful and varied. Next, he intimates discovery by alluding to astrologers finding new planets, and the imagery of Cortez’ first seeing the Pacific Ocean. Keats encapsulates the fact that he had heard of Homer and the euphoria of the vast impact of the newly acquired insight by declaring:
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. (6-11)
Keats reading experiences in general, and more his specifically, reading of Chapman’s Homer was so prolific, that he could only describe it in the sestet with metaphors and similes that bespeak grandeur of expanse, height and depth. The overarching metaphor is reading presented as travel. Hiliary S. Brautigam, in her essay, “Controlled Passion” writes: “Keats dramatically establishes the narrative with the arresting first line, drawing the reader into the overarching metaphor that encompasses the poem” (Bressler). A surface reading of the poem misleads the reader into believing that Keats is a man who has travelled to many places. Keats writes:
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold / And many goodly states and
kingdoms seen. / Round many western islands have been / Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. (1-4)
A closer inspection of the poem reveals that the word “much” quantifies travel that was done figuratively and not literally. So in this instance there is a twist of irony and there is also the masterful use of binary opposition whereby “much” is less in terms of Keats’ actual travel, but it is volumes in terms of travel through reading. The same mastery holds true for the concept of travel. As defined by Dictionary.Com to travel is: “to move or go from one place or point to another”(Dictionary.com). Denotatively, the word travel means moving between physical spaces; however, in Keats’ case, travel is not between physical spaces, but is over miles on mental projection. While Keats’ hero, Homer, though blind, travelled extensively, the vast majority of Keats travel was in the space of his reading.
The further use of simile and metaphor makes an excellent segue for Keats’ use of imagery. Keats writes: 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 (9-12). The simile “watcher of the skies” speaks of people who studied the science of astronomy. In the historical context, ‘watchers of the skies’ or, astrologers are people who studied the skies. According to Chris Lawton, “From around 3000 BC onwards, astronomy in its most primitive form had developed” (Lawton). In the religious context, ‘watchers of the skies’ were called Egyptian Magi, wise men, who were able to look at the skies and gain the knowledge and wisdom to predict events. The religious value of Magi can be found throughout the Holy Bible. For example, Matthew, in Matthew 2:1, 7 writes: “Now when Jesus was born â€¦there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem’ Then Herod â€¦ enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared (Matthew). Thus, Keats’ pronouncement that he felt like a “watcher of the skies” strongly implies the degree of wonder and amazement he felt when reading Chapman’s translation of Homer. It was, for Keats, as though he became aware of a ‘celestial event’.
Interestingly, the title of the poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” the emphasis on ‘Chapman’s Homer’ alludes to the fact that Keats was aware of the interpretation of Homer as translated by the English Poet, Alexander Pope. Michael Richards writes: “Keats had been previously acquainted with Homer, only through Pope’s translations, translations that Keats found artificial” (Richards). Further, Richards claims:
The Romantics’ criticisms of Pope and Chapman agreed with Keats in that it condemns the flaccidity, the polluted poetic diction, and the artificiality of Pope’s translation and praised the strength, purity, and originality of Chapman’s (Richards).
Until Keats read the translation by George Chapman, there was no awakening in him. Furthermore, the use of the word ‘looking’ in the title employs irony and imagery masterfully. According to Dictionary.Com: look may be defined as: ‘to investigate; to see’
(Dictionary.Com). It is fair to conclude that Keats’ reading and understanding of Chapman’s Homer was so thorough that Keats could ‘see by visualization’ the events, places, and people in Chapman’s translation.
In addition, the overarching themes of travel and discovery may very well be complimented by a theme of enlightenment or awakening. Through a theme of enlightenment or awakening, it may be argued that when Keats read Chapman’s Homer, it was not the first time that Keats had heard of Homer; however, it was the first time that the life, legacy, and literary contributions of Homer united with the literary experiences and convictions of Keats, giving birth to a synergistic awakening which unleashed Keats’ creativity. Keats’ declaration of hearing Chapman ‘speak out loud and bold’ is the climatic moment when he felt and understood the power of Chapman’s translation. Keats believes that Chapman illuminated Homer better than any other poet.
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The Sestet of the poem shows an overpowering word picture. There is a picture of bewildering excitement, star-struck awe, and fulfilling silence, much like a lover anticipating a climax, then experiencing the climax, and after the climax, falling into a breathless, trance-like fulfilled silence. Keats writes:
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. (9-14)
As is expected of Italian Sonnets, there is a clear denouement in the sestet.
The depictions of Cortez as “stout” and “eagle-eyed” are additional and effective uses of simile and metaphor that enhances the imagery. The word “stout” commonly evokes physical images of being “hefty”, “round”, “bulky” or “fat”. But, coupled with the expression “eagle-eye”, it most likely identifies with this interpretation as defined by Dictionary.Com: “having endurance or staying power” (Dictionary.com). It is a widely known fact that the vision of eagles is superior to that of humans. While lauding the superior vision of Cortez to identify the Pacific Ocean, Keats also shows the precision with which he scoured Chapman’s interpretation. Thus, by combining stout with eagle-eye, the poem highlights the strength, stamina and precision of not only Cortez but also that of Keats. The allusions to strength and stamina bolsters Keats’ strong use of metaphors, simile, and imagery. The strength of these literary elements is testament to Keats’ belief that Chapman’s Homer is superior to that of Pope’s. In the poem, Keats atttributes the discovery of the Pacific Ocean to Cortez and not Balboa. It is not clear whether Keats’s attribution was as a result of a careless scholastic approach, or, whether the attribution was as a result of the deliberate use of poetic conceit which is using extended metaphors to create an image. What is crystal clear though, is the fact that with diction, imagery, the use metaphor and simile, and the application of binary oppositions and irony, Keats allows the reader to envision how he felt when the life and works of Homer as offered by Chapman touched his pysche.
The impact of Chapman’s Homer complimented Keats’ historical, social and political perspectives. In October 1816 during the Romanic Era Keats penned “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. As was fitting during the Romantic Era, Keats ‘glorified’ Homer in the poem. Of course, in the neoclassic era, Homer’s individual heroism would be frowned upon, since neoclassics preferred people who conformed to social norms. Like Homer, Keats elevates the art of using metaphors. Again, Like Homer, Keats also combines the art of using simile and metaphor to bring to life a literary work that might otherwise be mundane. Here is a comparison of how Homer and Keats combined similes and metaphors. Homer writes: “The two immortals stepped briskly as wild doves, quivering, keen to defend the fighting men of Argos.” (Fagles)
Keats writes: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken (9-10). It is evident that Keats discovered the value of Homer’s use of metaphors and immediately made use of this powerful literary tool.
In summation, I submit that Keats’ ability as a poet and his understanding of the purpose and elements of Poetry, in particular, imagery, simile and metaphors were awakened by Chapman because Chapman captured the essence of using similes, metaphors, and imagery and gave life to writing about Homer. Apparently, after observing Chapman’s use of metaphor and gaining a deeper understanding of the power of the use of metaphor and simile, Keats’ appreciation for them as literary elements grew. Based on his newfound understanding, it is possible to assert that Keats’ view of Homer, as seen through the scope of Pope’s translation appeared tumultuous. However, Chapman’s translation depicted a much clearer view of a man whose territory is serene. Chapman’s translation was the catalyst for Keats’ climatic epiphany. Keats was able to clearly articulate how he felt before reading Chapman’s Homer and how he felt after reading Chapman’s Homer. The excitement felt by Keats as he discovered new truths about Homer and his work, is one that is shared and should be shared by any person seeking higher learner. John Keats so brilliantly and effectively conveyed the emotions he felt as he uncovered the dynamics of Homer that readers of the poem are drawn into the excitement of travel and discovery metaphorically. The imagery of Keats first as a poet who is reading for knowledge, then as an astronomer gazing into new truths, and finally as a explorer realizing that he had discovered a new world of literary skill was very vivid. The impact of Keats’s discovery fueled him to demonstrate the skill and document the experience. As a result future students, poets, writers, translators, interpreters, and lovers of the literary world have a good specimen of the effectiveness of imagery, simile, and metaphor. The words of Keats following below are a fitting conclusion to his discovery of power of the metaphor. Keats writes: 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.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2007.
Dictionary.com. 10 July 2010 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/travel>.
Dictionary.com. 15 July 2010 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/stoutl>.
Dictionary.com. 19 July 2010 <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/look>.
Fagles. Think Quest .Org. 10 July 2010 <http://library.thinkquest.org/19300/data/homer.htm>.
Lawton, Chris. tcp.co.uk. 5 July 2010 <http://homepages.tcp.co.uk/~carling/astrhis.html>.
Matthew.Blue Letter Bible. 8 July 2010 <http://www.blueletterbible.org>
Motion, Andrew. Richmond Review. 27 August 2010 <www.richmondreview.co.uk/books/keats.htm>.
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