Tag Archives: Classic Literature

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ 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.

This sonnet is a typically Keatsian feast of glorious sounds and luxurious rhymes. It is based upon Keats’ first experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and explores notions of the power of literature and the imagination. The poet tells us that Chapman’s work has inspired him to write; he intimates that he had never created “pure” poetry until “bold” Chapman encouraged him to “speak out”. On first looking into Chapman’s Homer is a tribute to Homer, to literature, and also, I think, to the genius of the poetic mind.

From the opening line of the poem you might notice a connection to many of Keats’ early sonnets. It begins with a beautiful, mysterious, alluring statement, akin in tone to “Great spirits now on earth are sojourning” and “The poetry of earth is never dead.” As with so much of Keats’ work, the sheer music of his words is enough to entice and delight.

The speaker begins by equating the act of reading with travelling. This metaphor extols the glory of the imagination, the “realms of gold”, where the narrator has journeyed, symbolising the great literary works of man. Keats had a great fascination for the imagination; in fact, he once wrote that he was “certain of nothing” but the “truth” of the imagination. The sonnet depicts the travels of Odysseus around the “goodly states”, “kingdoms” and “islands”, which are described in Homer, and which Keats, through reading Chapman’s translation, has experienced himself. Keats often alludes to his belief in the potency of literature, and does so notably in his other sonnet ‘Keen, fitful gusts’. In that poem, he remembers the great works of Milton and Petrarch as he confronts the harshly critical literary world. These memories inspire him, and give him confidence, ensuring that he feels “little” of the “bleak air”.

For me, the fact that Keats mentions so many great names from the distant past in this poem (Apollo, Homer and Cortez) highlights his burning ambition for recognition as a poet, and his concern for the writer’s role in society. He often refers to great poets of the past such as Milton and Shakespeare, as well as to fellow Romantic artists like Wordsworth and Haydon. I feel like he was continuously comparing himself to the masters, reminding himself of that which he dreams of achieving. The reference to Apollo here prefigures the more important role that the god of poetry will play in Keats’ later works such as Hyperion.

Within the octet there is an unmistakable impression of restlessness. The speaker is seemingly wandering from book to book, with no purpose or direction in mind. I think this reflects Keats’ early difficulties in finding poetic confidence. He speaks of how he had oft “been told” of “deep-brow’d Homer”. Perhaps Keats is acknowledging a feeling of inadequacy here — of being dwarfed by such a literary giant as Homer (often venerated as the first poet). This is consistent with much of Keats’ early verse, where there seems to be evidence of self-doubt and self-consciousness with regard to his credibility as a poet. For example, returning to ‘Keen, fitful gusts’, he acknowledges his youth and inexperience as he admits “I have many miles on foot to fare”. Likewise, in On first looking into Chapman’s Homer he infers that he had never created anything of beauty until he was inspired by this translation of Homer; (“never did I breathe its pure serene/ Till I heard Chapman speak”.) It is as though Keats had felt like an intruder in the closeted world of literature — that poetry was strictly the “demesne” of Homer and such. But Chapman encourages Keats, urging him to speak out “loud and bold”.

In the second half of the poem, as we enter the sestet, the verse completely alters in tone. The speaker is now inspired, empowered, and purposeful because of what he has read. Keats has created an intriguing connection between himself and the reader in this piece. The poem is a result of his inspiration from Chapman, and by writing his own beautiful sonnet, Keats seduces his reader into his poem in the same way that he was originally enthralled by Homer. The writer and reader share in the same experience. Keats compares himself to an astronomer and a famous explorer; since reading Homer the poet’s confidence has clearly grown rapidly! He also becomes more poetic here, as he likens the discovery of his own creative genius to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet, and to Cortez discovering South America. The caesura in the final line “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, is wonderfully dramatic, and seems to echo the awe that the poet feels at realising his poetic potential, and the vast landscapes of beauty that his imagination is capable of conjuring.

Another thing that I find really interesting in this poem is that it seems to show Keats’ ambition. It is hard to read it and not derive from it some notion of the immense task that Keats seems to have set himself. This is something that I have noticed in quite a lot of Keats’ work (perhaps it is most obvious in the piece ‘When I have fears’). Keats’ endeavours to perfect ancient and difficult poetic structures such as the ode and sonnet also seem to support this idea of ambition; he mentions it himself in a letter to Hessey, which he wrote while writing ‘Endymion’. He writes that through attempting to master these challenging forms he had “ leaped headlong into the Sea” of poetry, and so become “better acquainted” with it than if he had “stayed upon the green shore” and taken “tea and comfortable advice.” Keats was uncompromising; he refused to take heed of the criticism of anyone but himself. And I think it’s a very good thing that he didn’t!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh