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On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer -- John Keats

the first 'famous' poem that i'm sending...
(Poem #12) 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
from 'Poems', 1817

This is easily one of the two most beautifully evocative poems I've ever
read, the other one being Coleridge's 'Kublai Khan' . It's no
coincidence that both poems were written within a few years of each
other, by poets who would come to symbolize their time: the Romantic
Revolution of the early 18th century occasioned a paradigm shift in the
theory of poetic expression, and the Romantic poets (Byron, Shelley,
Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth, among others) consciously strove to
express their innermost feelings through their verse. And although I
don't care much for the Romantics per se, I have to admit that I'm
deeply moved by the best of their verse.

Coming back to today's poem... Keats was (even among the Romantics)
acknowledged to be the master of the evocative phrase; much of his
poetry is as pure as music. Not for him the metaphysics of Shelley, the
lushness of Byron, the down-to-earth genius of Wordsworth, or the
flights of fancy of Coleridge: Keats was a poet in the purest sense of
the word - a minstrel of the emotions.

'On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer' - well, I think that every
single phrase of this poem is as close to perfection as it's possible to
get. The very last line is simply sublime. I can say no more.

thomas.

PS. One of these days I'll write and send an essay on various movements
in the history of poetry - ie, the metaphysical poets, the romantics,
the imagists, the beats... just give me time, give me time.

481 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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SURENDRANATHC said...

hi,
one famous blooper, it was not 'stout' Cortez but Balboa.... In all
possibility, Hernan Cortez never saw the Pacific......

Janell921 said...

It is not a blooper that Keats choose to use Cortez rather than balboa.
For it is a juxtaposition to Chapman's translation of Homer. He
discovers the wonder of Homer
through Chapman, whom he gives credit, though he only translates Homer's
work.

David Jordan said...

Curious that Keats should mistake Cortez for Balboa. Cortez conquered Mexico
and his name could evoke his first view of the beautiful, sprawling, ancient
kingdom of the Aztecs, which would compare with a first view of the
civilisation which Homer describes. Also, like Odysseus, Cortez was both a
warrior and an explorer and, it seems, a man of ingenuity and winding
fortune.
Anyone looking to discover Homer should first view this gem.
DJ.

Steve Chernicoff said...

A superb poem, of course--justly one of the most renowned and admired of
English sonnets.

The funny thing is, I have had literally the same experience as Keats. Like
many people, I was subjected to the Odyssey in high school in a deadly
dull, stilted, wooden prose translation. It wasn't until years later, when
I discovered the wonderful free-verse translation by Robert Fitzgerald,
that I first came to breathe the pure serene of Homer's original. Then felt
I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken...on
first looking into Fitzgerald's Homer.

One detail worth pointing out in Keats's sonnet is "deep-browed Homer"--a
Homeresque epithet in itself, like "grey-eyed Athena" or "ox-eyed Hera" or
"rosy-fingered dawn" or "the wine-dark sea."

Mike Offer said...

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies" not "I felt".
Pedantic, but true.

Keith Cochran said...

My friend in poetry,
I am a mere English teacher. I consider Keats' "...Chapman's Homer"
in my AP classes. I have noted the historical discrepancy in the
discoverer of the Pacific Ocean. My students and I have two questions:
Why did Keats select Cortez? Why, other than the rhyme scheme, did he
select Darien? Keats surely had something in mind, but I cannot locate a
satisfactory allusion. Thanks for your time with a most wonderful poet.
Respectfully,
Keith Cochran
Dallas, TX

Jo Hanslip said...

He probably selected Darien with reference to the area of Panama where a
number of Scots tried to set up a new home, in a scheme which bankrupted
Scotland - half the capital of Scotland was sunk into it in, I think, the
seventeenth century, but the Scottish emigrants died of fever, starvation
and the Spanish. There is still a place in the area of Darien called Punta
Escosa. Darien must still have been infamous at the time of the poem.

Bob Krieckhaus said...

I've always imagined Cortez and his men thought they were going to find
India. OK, not historical. So they thought they'd see some lovely valley
vista or another, maybe a range of mountains beyond even these they were
climbing. But No, the whole, endless watery expanse of the Pacific. Oh.

Phil Estrin said...

This poem is indeed sublime, though my favorite Keats poem is "Ode to
Autumn." Another supreme work of art regarding someone being inspired by
Homer is Rembrandt's "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer." As for
the comment by the person who was first exposed to a dreary translation
of Homer's work in school, how unfortunate it is that the Western canon
is taught in such off-putting ways! The canon, with both its wisdom and
folly, is a universal treasure that should ignite our spirits.

Joey Terzi said...

Anyone ever notice the rhyme scheme of the first 8 lines, the octate of
the poem.
Line 1,4,5, and 8 and rhyme with each other as do 2,3,6,7?
Is it a known fact that this rhyme scheme is matched with the consonance
and dissonance of the musical scale,
where the 1st, 4th, 5th and 8th or octave are the perfect intervals and
2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th are the so called imperfect intervals?

Anonymous said...

what does "One Wide Expanse"mean? and who is being refered to by analogy in1.9

Anonymous said...

Apparently Keats's friend and fellow Chapman-reader noticed the "mistake" of Cortez for Balboa but Keats kept it in anyway. Perhaps because it adds so much to the concept. Whoever points a telescope toward Uranus may not be its discoverer; Cortez may not be the first to see the Pacific; and Keats definitely is not the first to have a "peak experience" (as it were) reading either Homer or a translation of him. But, despite the layers of time, culture, and language in between him and Homer, Keats FEELS like the first one (as do all who travel in the realms of gold when they begin to "get it" with a great work of literature, translated or not)

Anonymous said...

Response to the 3-1-11 anonymous question: The octet is built on an extended metaphor which compares all the LITERATURE Keats has read to geographic places--books, or a writer's entire corpus, are like realms/kingdoms/islands/one wide expanse ruled by the author--but only as secondary rulers holding the land, like medieval nobles, in "fealty" to the real ruler of all these domains=Apollo, the god of poetry. So "one wide expanse" is Homer's works--which, he finds out, are more than an island or a big estate; his works are like a new planet or the whole Pacific.

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Sharol Tiegs said...

As an AP student, I am currently writing a paper on this poem and I have but one question: What did the speaker miss reading Homer before Chapman? In other words, why did the Keats enjoy Chapman's work so much more than that of Homer? I believe that is like someone praising my stick figure drawing of the Mona Lisa rather than da Vinci's masterpiece.

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Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter whether it was Cortes. It doesn't matter that he chose Darien.
Listen to the music...these are eternal verities that owe nothing the the certainties of history.

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