“On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”- a poem by John Keats

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.

As I progress through the lines I am struck by its exquisite  imagery and the music of the lines which make it a pretty neat poem, executed within the constraining framework of a sonnet. The theme is easily followed and the poem needs no line by line synopsis . First let us look at the structure of the poem while focusing on its exquisite imagery.

The poem makes its statement in the first eight lines called octave in the sonnet, at the end of which it has stated what the poem has set out to do. The poet has read Homer in a translation by Chapman and it was a discovery for the poet who feels he has seen Homer in  an entirely new perspective.

In the following six lines (called sextet in a sonnet), the poet tells us what his feelings are about Homer as interpreted by Chapman. The whole poem is about another poem and has therefore to be necessarily about the aesthetic experience that Homer’s translation by Chapman has provided to the poet. You will not find any  sensory perceptions that provide the basic impetus for a romantic poem. Here poetry is not a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings as was believed by Wordsworth nor an emotion recollected in tranquility. There is no direct experience with nature and there is no sensory experience behind the thought.

Like the ode on a Grecian urn, the present poem is ekphrastic i.e. conveying experience of a piece of  art through another piece of art. Here Homer’s classic epic poem in Greek translated into English is the original poem .The present poem seeks to re-create the unique artistic experience that Keats had when he first “lookedinto Chapman’s Homer.

Instead of using sensory images that a romantic poet would  normally employ ,Keats draws upon his classical scholarship to describe his own experience by the use of allusions.We may therefore appreciate the poem better by understanding the allusions.

1) Keats is describing his experience with Chapman’s Homer on “first” looking into it. What he probably means is that it is  the first time he went through the experience of reading Homer through a translation by Chapman. He knew no Greek and had to experience Homer only through a competent translation .And for  Keats it was a pleasurable experience.

2) Keats has of course traveled through many realms of gold  and goodly kingdoms in literature but never had he ever felt he had discovered a new land. He had traveled many western islands which bards in fealty to Apollo hold .Here islands  mean the kingdoms of Apollo , the Greek god of Music and poetry .Those are the worlds of literature ,not in a geographical sense.

3) Let us understand some of the fine imagery employed by Keats:

Bards in fealty to Apollo hold: Bards are poets who sing their verse but in a general sense the word is used for all poets e.g .Bard of Avon

Realms of gold: Great literary worlds

One wide expanse:

Anticipates the discovery of the wide expanse of the pacific sea from the hilltop in Darien

Deep-browed Homer:

I love the image “ deep-browed” as as the other side of the “ low-browed” or “high-browed”. Homer’s intellect can be rightly described in such a posture of the poet while writing a poem of such epic proportions.

“Yet never did I breathe its pure serene”

Love the use of the adjective serene as a noun to describe the air .

Felt like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken:

Lovely image to describe the discovery of Chapman’s Homer in terms of discovery of a new planet by an astronomer .

When a new planet swims into his ken

A pretty way of describing a chance discovery of a new planet .

Stout Cortez was an unjust description if “stout” is taken to mean fat. Here it means the leader of the expedition that was to discover the Pacific ocean from a hilltop in Darien.In any case it was not poor Cortez but Balboa who had discovered it.

With eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific – and all his men

A fine dramatic situation in which Cortez or Balboa, if you prefer , reaches the top and stares at the Pacific while all his men looked at each other in wild surmise. They would have guessed that their leader had reached the top and was viewing the vast expanse of the Pacific sea.

“The Purist” – A poem by Ogden Nash

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

A typical cruel poem , with a crooked twist. Twist is the name of the protagonist, who is a professor, a conscientious scientist sent to the tropics because he never bungles. When sent to the jungles he never bungles. He is camped on a riverside and surely that is no bungle in the jungle.

Look he never bungles , say the Trustee of the scientific expedition or whatever it is. Twist is not a twisted personality . He is just a conscientious scientist . When one day the guide informed him that his loving bride had been eaten by an alligator, all he was worried about was the identification of the species of the crocodile that had eaten her. The purist that he is he cannot brook linguistic incompetence. There are no alligators in the tropics, only crocodiles. The guide has not got his facts right.

The guide , mixed up about the crocodile species, seems to have been in no particular hurry to inform the scientist about his loving bride’s tragic disappearance in the crocodile’s gastronomy. It was only later that the serious-minded professor is informed about it. May be he was too busy with his scientific pursuits and the guide hesitated to call his attention to this rather routine event in the jungle. That was not a bungle by him. That is how the events turn out. The professor-scientist is language purist. He is mildly concerned about the minor bungle in the identification of the species.

A cruel poem with a crooked twist. Does the inside cruelty not hit you somewhere in the stomach? And you expected to laugh?

“Everything passes and vanishes “- A poem by William Allingham

Everything passes and vanishes
Everything leaves its trace;
And often you see in a footstep
What you could not see in a face.

“Everything passes” and “everything vanishes ” – at first ,they sound tautological?  “pass” is an act of going past and does not necessarily imply disappearance. “vanish” is simply the act of going up in smoke, with no trace of a thing. Pass is with reference to a person whom a thing goes past. ‘Vanish” is the reality of disappearing into non-existence and has no reference to a third party observer.

Pass is a relative fact depending upon the observer. “Vanish” is an absolute fact, that holds true irrespective of whether there is someone observing or not.

“Passes and vanishes” is both a physical act of leaving and an abstract act of dissolving into nonexistence. Both “pass” and “vanish” are acts of someone’s leaving but pass does not necessarily mean never to come back. “pass” may leave a trace while still happening but vanish is going never to come back. There is no trace left by the vanished. “pass” is preparatory to “vanish” and before vanishing there may still be some trace. Passing can take place without the possibility of vanishing if the observer changes his position of observation .

Besides ,a pass does not mean never to come back.Someone may pass from our life to another space ,another context. What is true of death is also true of someone’s leaving our lives either to another place or to another context.

and often you see in a footstep
what you could not see in a face”

A fine aphoristic two-line containing a beautiful image. Clearly it means what you might not have known about a dead person when he was alive sometimes becomes known after his death. Thus a fine work of art or a momentous discovery or a silent act of service to fellow humans may not have come to everyone’s notice during a person’s lifetime.

What you could not see in a face” suggests what you overlooked when the person was alive. The world could not recognize the true worth of the person when he was alive. That is when he had a face but you could not spot greatness in it due to your own limitations . He is dead but his footstep leaves traces of his personality and it is only now you know his true worth.

“A Route of Evanescence”- a poem by Emily Dickinson

A Route of Evanescence
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald –
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head –
The mail from Tunis, probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

On the face of it , Emily Dickinson’s nature poem is tough to crack. But don’t you imagine it is deliberately so or esoteric enough for the poetry novices. Suffice it to know it is about a humming bird and everything falls into place. Let us try to peel it off layer by layer.

We come down to imagery. It is madam’s beautiful images that do most of the talking. Only we need to fire our imagination a bit .

A Route of Evanescence :

Imagine the speed with which a humming bird approaches a flower. It is as though the route it charted disappears as thin air as your eyes follow its flight and you hardly find a trace of the route. Evanescence means a gradual fading away. A route of fading away? The speed with which it approaches the flower is so high that the route appears as if fading away.

We have no humming birds in our country but we can imagine it’s speed from our native Sun bird, probably a distant cousin of the humming bird.

Revolving wheel:

One wonders where in the world a wheel comes, speaking of a bird flapping wings  . But it strikes me that a humming bird flaps wings 60 times per second, a speed at which it resembles a fast revolving wheel. In the revolving wheel the spokes become blurred to sight and the wheel becomes just a blurry circle. A humming bird flaps its wings to keep itself balanced in the air before a flower to draw its nectar. The flapping is so fast that the bird becomes a blurry circle in the air.

A resonance of emerald

Interesting use of an auditory metaphor to describe an essentially visual experience. Emerald is the green of the bird that strikes the eye  as in a “resonance” ,that is an echo of the color green. The bird flaps its wings extremely fast to stay balanced before the flower and its image to the eye appears  as fuzzy green.

A rush of Cochineal

Cochineal refers to “crimson red’ of the bird, the word denoting a particular dye derived from an insect. The word may be an obscure one but the use of the particular shade of color suggests the poet’s deep knowledge of color. But more striking is the use of the word “rush” to suggest a quick movement of the bird as it appears to the eye.

Every blossom on the bush…

“Every blossom adjusts its tumbled head” is a beautiful description of the way the flowers bend at the onrush of wind the bird’s fast moving wings generate. The flower bends its tumbled head and re-adjusts it to its normal position.A beautiful extended metaphor.

The mail from Tunis

From the flower’s stationary point of view , the sudden rushing in of the bird is indeed a big surprise .May be it is a mail from a far off Tunisia. It is as though one suddenly gets a mail from an unexpected far off place.

If indeed the bird is a visitor from a far off place like Tunis, wouldn’t it have taken a long time to reach ,across such a vast distance? Oh, that is alright and it was just an easy morning ride.

“Funeral Blues”-A poem by W.H.Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Auden’s tongue is firmly in his cheeks. It looks like he is mourning a politician’s death and inasmuch as politicians are VIP s ,there is public mourning of their deaths. We can have overhead planes sky-writing “He is dead”. We can have traffic cops wearing black cotton gloves .We can arrange for the public doves to wear crepe bows in their necks.

But surely we cannot have public doves. Doves cannot be expected to wear bows in their white necks for our VIP deaths. But why not. We can still have a few public doves for our VIP deaths, the very doves our VIP politicians release for peace for our ceremonies of innocence. Some doves are public but most are private.

But let us stop time. Come on, we can’t do that. We can of course stop all clocks. All clocks? At least the clocks around. On other clocks of the world we cannot do much. We can also cut off telephone wires so that all communication with the outside world is stopped.

How do we silence the dog barking your pantleg? Just give him a particularly juicy bone to chew on.

In the meantime let the planes hang around in the sky to skywrite a message – “he is dead” with their tailsmoke. Why such a cryptic message? Doesnt it sound a little too skylarky, such a cryptic message?

Public grief vs. Private grief

Now the public doves are in mourning. Public planes are writing cryptic messages in sky. Public clocks are stopped,public phone wires cut.

Private dogs have stopped barking, bribed by a juicy bone. What about private grief of the narrator?

The dead man was his North, East and West and South (NEWS). He was his working week,his holiday ,his Sunday.His talk, his song. He thought love would last for ever. He was wrong. Love did not last for ever.

We may have not have achieved much success with private doves, with dogs at pantlegs without bribing them a juicy bone and with all clocks and all calendars. Now we order that all stars be promptly put out. Of what use is the stars, now that our man is dead and gone. Let the moon be packed up and put away in the attic.Let the sun be dismantled. Let the sea be poured away somewhere in the outer space. Let the woods be swept away and they are of no use. Nothing now comes to any good.

Funeral blues are such. Private deaths turn public like doves turn public. Stars are sky’s eyes that have to be put out because they are no longer required in the firmament now that our man is dead. Private grief turns public. Let the coffin be brought out. Was that grief or somebody pulling your pantlegs? There is no irony where there is plain fun making.We all hate politicians but do not celbrate their deaths. Here a funeral grief is just “blues”, exaggerated quantification of how much we love the deceased.

The irony arises in the much larger picture of how much of our grief is so banal, so matter-of-factly expressed. Death is such a routine thing-expressed as a pathetic fallacy in which nature is coerced to act as mourner. The larger irony arises out of the stupidity of equating private loss to a cosmic event.

A dog after love: A cocky poem about love

A dog after love
A cocky poem about love
by Yehuda Amichai

“After you left me
I had a bloodhound sniff at
my chest and my belly. Let it fill its nostrils
and set out to find you.

I hope it will find you and rip
your lover’s balls to shreds and bite off his cock–
or at least
bring me one of your stockings between its teeth”

After she left , he would have a bloodhound sniff his chest and belly. That is where her smell lingers. The sniffer dog will find her from the smell. Surely her new lover,who may be with her, carries her smell too . The bloodhound will then rip his balls and bite off his cock. Because that is where her smell resides. Sweet revenge.

In case the dog fails to do that, he will at least bring one of her stockings. It is still sweet revenge . With only one stocking how will she roam around with her new lover?

In case the dog bites off his cock, she may have to come back to her old lover! How desirable !

What do you think is the tone of the poem? It is certainly not a love poem . Nobody tells a lover who abandons him for another that he is setting a sniffer dog after love. Where is the tongue and is it in the big cheek? Of course the dog goes after love, just like a police dog does. For the smell he has only to sniff at the master’s chest and belly.

But the master only hopes the dog will find her , based upon a comparison of her scent as captured from his chest and belly. He only hopes that the smell still persists after she left . Whatever is left may not be sufficient for the dog to find her. The dog may not have enough smell left to fill its nostrils. But does the master really care? If the dog finds her and her lover it may rip the lover’s balls or bite off his cock.

If not, the dog will return with a stocking of the beloved.What does this prove? Probably that the lover does not exist or that the lover does not smell of the beloved , where such smell is supposed to linger after her infidelity with the second lover.

What I find interesting is the gentle playfulness about the theme of love. Does love really matter? If your love leaves you all you do is set a dog after it. Do not go searching for her. Do not go mushy about love on lonely moon lit nights.The smell of love hardly persists for the dog to go after. But jealousy is the trapping of love. If there is a lover his balls have to be ripped, his cock wrenched off. But that is all part of the game and no hard feelings. You really mean hard -on feelings.

What does one want from love, now that the beloved has left for another? A souvenir from dead love, like one stocking from her feet. If the dog finds no lover whose balls have to be ripped or cock wrenched off, let him bring one stocking from her between his teeth. At least. What will one do with one stocking? Is it to just moon over it like a medieval lover? For all we know it may be to put her feet out of stocking for a while. A sweet revenge.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now : A poem By A.E.Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.


Since the poet believes he has just 50 years to go within the 70 years of life expectancy allotted to him, he better make most of it, he feels. carpe diem, as the old poet would say. How does he know he has full fifty years to go? Well that is what the Bible calculates as the average life of a man. Since he has completed twenty years of age he may yet have fifty left.

Interestingly fifty is also too few to look at the beauty of a cherry tree in bloom. Just now the tree is hung with bloom and the poet may better rush not to miss one spring of cherry tree in bloom,out of the fifty springs allotted to him.

The cherry tree is now hung with bloom by the woodland ride. It is Easter time now ,a spring for resurrection. The the tree is wearing white for Eastertide, celebrating Christ’s resurrection.

All is white and spring and the tree is hung with bough, white as snow. Pure snow as if the blossoms are not blossoms but heavy fruit with which the tree is bent low .

The tree has only fifty springs to show its white splendor.Not that the tree is twenty and has an allotted time span of fifty years. But the tree is beautiful only to the extent the poet, who has only fifty years left to his credit,watches and enjoys its beauty by the woodland ride.

While the general theme of making most of your day (carpe diem) is fairly simple, the poet builds into the poem the two sub themes . One is of course the mortality of humankind who will find their lives too brief to enjoy the infinite beauties present in nature . Beauty is recurrent phenomenon in nature with each spring bringing afresh new beauties, new life. The white snow of the cherry blossoms appears each spring as though it is enacting Christ’s resurrection at the Eastertide. The second sub-theme is that the beauties of nature occur each year irrespective of the mortality of the humans who admire them in song and poetry. The cherry tree now stands by the woodland ride but every year in spring it comes back with a bough heavy with blossoms. There is a theme of resurrection, irrespective of the “three score and ten” years life allotted to a human. The beauties of nature are timeless with the themes of death and resurrection being continually played out in its seasons.

Some interesting images are as follows:

a) The cherry now/Is hung with bloom

Cherry now refers to the spring season now,(April-May) when the cherry tree is in full bloom.

“Hung with bloom” suggests a mellow fruitfulness such as what Keats refers to in his Ode to Autumn, where the bough is bent with the heaviness of fruit. Here it is just bloom and the bough appears bent with the heaviness of bloom. The bough is so full of flowers that it looks as if it is bent under their weight.

“Hung with bloom” is a beautiful expression. “Cherry now” rhymes nicely with “along the bough” bringing out the symbiotic relationship of the “cherry now” with the “bough”

b) Wearing white for Eastertide.

A lovely image of the white cherry blossoms ,in which the bough looks like it is wearing white for the Eastertide. Every spring the tree blooms in white as if it is celebrating Christ’s Resurrection, a time for wearing white.

Wearing white is an evocative expression suggesting white purity of the clothes worn for the Eastertide.

c) Fifty springs are little room

To look at things in bloom, fifty springs are a little too short in one’s life.You have only one spring in a year and the beauty of the bloom lasts only for a short while and for their return you have to wait for the next spring.