Friday, December 21, 2007

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

John Keats was exemplar of the turn of the 18th century romantic poets who had far reaching influence on poets to come long after his short 25 year lifespan. The ever-reliable Wikipedia has a well documented page on Keats. We'll, here, instead focus on today's poem, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.

Keats was so moved by the power and aliveness of Chapman's (George Chapman, 1559 - 1634) translation of Homer that he wrote this sonnet--after spending all night reading Homer with a friend. The poem expresses the intensity of Keats' experience; it also reveals how passionately he cared about poetry. To communicate how profoundly the revelation of Homer's genius affected him, Keats uses imagery of exploration and discovery. In a sense, the reading experience itself becomes a Homeric voyage, both for the poet and the reader.

First, the poem itself, before we start analyzing the sonnet:
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 never did I 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.

-- John Keats
As any Petrarchan sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" falls into two parts--an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet describes Keats' reading experience before reading Chapman's translation and the sestet contrasts his experience of reading it. Keats builds up the scenario in the octet, with phrases like "Much have I travell'd" -- indicating the vastness of his reading, before talking about the triumphant entry Chapman's Homer makes in his literary universe in the sestet. Quite aptly, Keats chooses the metaphors of discovery in vast spaces, like a planet in the universe, or discovering the vast Pacific.

One, much-oft criticized point in the sonnet is that in reality it was Balboa the sailor who discovered the Pacific and not Cortez. An interesting theory proposed to reason this is that just as it was Homer who described the voyages of Odysseus and it was Chapman whose subsequent translation was what had caught Keats' heart and soul; the metaphor links to Cortez who repeated Balboa's original feat of viewing and describing the vastness of the Pacific.

I'll just end with what an anonymous writer has to say of Keats --
... more than any other writer before or since Shakespeare, he (Keats) had the ability to distil in its purest form that quality called 'poetry' in his verse. He doesn't use ornate or flowery language; his rhymes and rhythms are often less than perfect; his themes can be ordinary. And yet his words are just magical - pure music.

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