“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.

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