On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

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 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-browed 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.



"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is a sonnet
Sonnet
A sonnet is one of several forms of poetry that originate in Europe, mainly Provence and Italy. A sonnet commonly has 14 lines. The term "sonnet" derives from the Occitan word sonet and the Italian word sonetto, both meaning "little song" or "little sound"...

 by English
England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 Romantic
Romanticism
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...

 poet
Poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

 John Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 (1795-1821) written in October 1816. It tells of the author's astonishment at reading the works of the ancient Greek
Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 poet Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 as freely translated
Translation
Translation is the communication of the meaning of a source-language text by means of an equivalent target-language text. Whereas interpreting undoubtedly antedates writing, translation began only after the appearance of written literature; there exist partial translations of the Sumerian Epic of...

 by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman
George Chapman
George Chapman was an English dramatist, translator, and poet. He was a classical scholar, and his work shows the influence of Stoicism. Chapman has been identified as the Rival Poet of Shakespeare's Sonnets by William Minto, and as an anticipator of the Metaphysical Poets...

.

The poem has become an often-quoted classic, cited to demonstrate the emotional power of a great work of art, and the ability of great art to create an epiphany
Epiphany (feeling)
An epiphany is the sudden realization or comprehension of the essence or meaning of something...

 in its beholder.

Background information


Keats' generation was familiar enough with the polished literary translations of John Dryden
John Dryden
John Dryden was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden.Walter Scott called him "Glorious John." He was made Poet...

 and Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson...

, which gave Homer an urbane gloss similar to Virgil
Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

, but expressed in blank verse
Blank verse
Blank verse is poetry written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. It has been described as "probably the most common and influential form that English poetry has taken since the sixteenth century" and Paul Fussell has claimed that "about three-quarters of all English poetry is in blank verse."The first...

 or heroic couplet
Heroic couplet
A heroic couplet is a traditional form for English poetry, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry; it refers to poems constructed from a sequence of rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. The rhyme is always masculine. Use of the heroic couplet was first pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer in...

s. Chapman's vigorous and earthy paraphrase (1616) was put before Keats by Charles Cowden Clarke
Charles Cowden Clarke
Charles Cowden Clarke , English author and Shakespearian scholar, was born in Enfield, Middlesex.-Life:His father, John Clarke, was a schoolmaster in Clarke's Academy in Enfield Town, among whose pupils was John Keats. Charles Clarke taught Keats his letters, and encouraged his love of poetry...

, a friend from his days as a pupil at a boarding school in Enfield Town
Enfield Town
Enfield Town is the historic town centre of Enfield, formerly in the county of Middlesex and now in the London Borough of Enfield. It is north north-east of Charing Cross...

. 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."

Analysis


The "realms of gold" in the opening line seem to imply worldly riches, until the name of Homer
Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

 appears; then they are recognized as literary and cultural realms. Of the many islands of the Aegean
Aegean Sea
The Aegean Sea[p] is an elongated embayment of the Mediterranean Sea located between the southern Balkan and Anatolian peninsulas, i.e., between the mainlands of Greece and Turkey. In the north, it is connected to the Marmara Sea and Black Sea by the Dardanelles and Bosporus...

, the one which bards most in fealty owe to Apollo
Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...

, leader of the inspiring Muse
Muse
The Muses in Greek mythology, poetry, and literature, are the goddesses who inspire the creation of literature and the arts. They were considered the source of the knowledge, related orally for centuries in the ancient culture, that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths...

s, is Delos
Delos
The island of Delos , isolated in the centre of the roughly circular ring of islands called the Cyclades, near Mykonos, is one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece...

, the sacred island that was Apollo's birthplace. The island-dotted Aegean lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean
Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean Sea is a sea connected to the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the Mediterranean region and almost completely enclosed by land: on the north by Anatolia and Europe, on the south by North Africa, and on the east by the Levant...

; thus when Keats refers to the "western islands" of his own experience, he tacitly contrasts them with the East Indies
Indies
The Indies is a term that has been used to describe the lands of South and Southeast Asia, occupying all of the present India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and also Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, East Timor, Malaysia and...

, the goal that drew adventurers like doughty Cortés
Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century...

 and Balboa
Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a Spanish explorer, governor, and conquistador. He is best known for having crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, becoming the first European to lead an expedition to have seen or reached the Pacific from the New World.He traveled to the New World in...

 to the New World
New World
The New World is one of the names used for the Western Hemisphere, specifically America and sometimes Oceania . The term originated in the late 15th century, when America had been recently discovered by European explorers, expanding the geographical horizon of the people of the European middle...

, an example of submerged imagery behind the text, which is typical of Keats' technique.

The second quatrain introduces "one wide expanse" that was ruled by Homer, but which was "heard of" rather than known to Keats at first-hand, for Homer wrote in Greek, and Keats, like most cultured Englishmen of his time, was at ease only in Latin. The "wide expanse" might have been a horizon of land or sea, but in Keats' breathing its "pure serene", we now sense that it encompasses the whole atmosphere, and in it Chapman's voice rings out. This sense of fresh discovery brings the reader to the volta
Volta (literature)
In literature, the volta, also referred to as the turn, is the shift or point of dramatic change. The term is most frequently used in discussion of sonnet form, in which the volta marks a shift in thought...

: "Then felt I...".

The "new planet" was Uranus
Uranus
Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun. It has the third-largest planetary radius and fourth-largest planetary mass in the Solar System. It is named after the ancient Greek deity of the sky Uranus , the father of Cronus and grandfather of Zeus...

, discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel
William Herschel
Sir Frederick William Herschel, KH, FRS, German: Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was a German-born British astronomer, technical expert, and composer. Born in Hanover, Wilhelm first followed his father into the Military Band of Hanover, but emigrated to Britain at age 19...

, Astronomer Royal to George III, the first planet unknown to astronomers of Antiquity. It was a new world in the heavens.

In point of historical fact, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Vasco Núñez de Balboa
Vasco Núñez de Balboa was a Spanish explorer, governor, and conquistador. He is best known for having crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean in 1513, becoming the first European to lead an expedition to have seen or reached the Pacific from the New World.He traveled to the New World in...

's expedition which were the first Europeans to see the Pacific, but Keats chose to focus on Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro, 1st Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century...

; "Darien" refers to the Darién
Darién Province
Darién is a province in eastern Panama. It is also the largest province in Panama. It is hot, humid, heavily forested, and sparsely populated, having 48,378 habitants...

 province of Panama
Panama
Panama , officially the Republic of Panama , is the southernmost country of Central America. Situated on the isthmus connecting North and South America, it is bordered by Costa Rica to the northwest, Colombia to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The...

. Keats had been reading William Robertson's
William Robertson (historian)
William Robertson FRSE FSA was a Scottish historian, minister of religion, and Principal of the University of Edinburgh...

 History of America and apparently conflated two scenes there described: Balboa's finding 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).

John Keats simply remembered the image, rather than the actual historical facts. Charles Clarke noticed the error immediately, but Keats chose to leave it in, presumably because historical accuracy would have necessitated an unwanted extra syllable in the line.

In retrospect, Homer's "pure serene" has prepared the reader for the Pacific, and so the analogy now expressed in the simile
Simile
A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things, usually by employing the words "like", "as". Even though both similes and metaphors are forms of comparison, similes indirectly compare the two ideas and allow them to remain distinct in spite of their similarities, whereas...

 that identifies the wide expanse of Homer's demesne with the vast Pacific, which stuns its discoverers into silence, is felt to be the more just.

Keats altered "wondr'ing eyes" (in the original manuscript) to "eagle eyes", and "Yet could I never judge what Men could mean" (which was the seventh line even in the first publication in The Examiner) to "Yet did I never breathe its pure serene".

Structure


This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, divided into an octave
Octave
In music, an octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. The octave relationship is a natural phenomenon that has been referred to as the "basic miracle of music", the use of which is "common in most musical systems"...

 and a sestet
Sestet
A sestet is the name given to the second division of an Italian sonnet , which must consist of an octave, of eight lines, succeeded by a sestet, of six lines. The first documented user of this poetical form was the Italian poet, Petrarch. In the usual course the rhymes are arranged abc abc, but...

, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-d-c-d. After the main idea has been introduced and the image played upon in the octave, the poem undergoes a volta
Volta (literature)
In literature, the volta, also referred to as the turn, is the shift or point of dramatic change. The term is most frequently used in discussion of sonnet form, in which the volta marks a shift in thought...

, a change in the persona's train of thought. The volta, typical of Italian sonnets, is put very effectively to use by Keats as he refines his previous idea. While the octave offers the poet as a literary explorer, the volta brings in the discovery of Chapman's Homer, the subject of which is further expanded through the use of imagery and comparisons which convey the poet's sense of awe at the discovery.

As is typical of sonnets in English, the meter is iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter is a commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called "feet"...

, though not all of the lines scan perfectly (line 12 has an extra syllable, for example).

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