Keats: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

June 19, 2019
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 is another of my all-time favourites. It’s about an epiphany, a sudden moment of revelation, awareness of something not known or understood before, and it works through a comparison that develops throughout the poem. Chapman was the first translator of Homer into English, in the early seventeenth century (1611); before that it was assumed you were educated enough to read the original in classical Greek. And if you couldn’t, like the young Keats, tough, until translations came along; as a young poet he would surely have wanted to read the ur-poet’s work but couldn’t access it until he got hold of Chapman’s version. You can find it online.

Keats likens his exploration of the world of poetry to the travels of the Spanish conquistadors to the New World in the sixteenth century in this Petrarchan sonnet, the octave describing his travels through the world of poetry, and the sestet the effect the discovery of Homer in translation has on him, the wow-moment. The rhyme scheme is regular: count it out, mark it up and see.

The opening quatrain outlines the extent of his familiarity with the poetry, perhaps mainly of western countries. The poets are imagined as countries and islands, and the richness of the poetry is referenced in the gold and the kingdoms, the heritage going back centuries perhaps also alluded to through obsolescent words like bards and fealty. Poets are loyal to Apollo, god of the muses of inspiration… He’s heard about Homerdeep brow’d the adjective traditionally applied to him in history, in the way that all the epic heroes also had their own epithet, which helped summon up the character in the imagination of the listener – but never been able to actually read any. He knows of the poet’s demesne – another archaic word – and finally encounters it with the aid of Chapman.

Keats then wants to make us aware of the powerful effect on him of reading Homer. The two lines which compare it to an astronomer discovering a new planet are superb, close as the poet was in time to the recent discovery (1780) of Uranus by William Herschel. No new planet had been discovered since ancient times; even Homer knew about Saturn. The new planet swimming into his ken is lovely: the planet reveals itself to the astronomer, rather than he finding it, we have both discovery and revelation here.

But the Cortez image is even more powerful. You need to look for the isthmus of Darien on a map of Central America, and think about what actually happened: nobody knew the Pacific Ocean was there! It’s vast, and has never been seen before by a westerner. Cortez and his men climb a mountain and – WTF? There it is, as far as the eye can see in every direction. Look at star’d: why is that good? Why is it better than gazed, for example? It’s often helpful, I’ve found, when you are considering a poet’s choice of a word, to look at what s/he might have used instead, and reflect on why they went with what they chose.

Consider the picture of Cortez’ men looking at each other, and the expressions on their faces as they realise. The power of the single word silent, at the start of a line, the last line, with a pause following it, needs to be taken on board properly; the rest of the final line merely locates them, it’s a let-down after the shock: you are meant to feel as stunned as they are.

There’s a good deal more to find in the language and sounds of this poem if you take the time; again I think it’s a brilliant example of just how much can be packed into such a small space. What Keats wants you to understand and to experience is that sudden flash of realisation, and if there has been one for you about anything in your life, then that will help you get what he means.

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