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John Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

Updated on April 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Keats

Source

Introduction and Text of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

John Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is an Italian sonnet with a traditional Petrarchan rime-scheme in its octave and its sestet, the octave: ABBAABBA, the sestet: CDCDCD. (Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The speaker communicates his awe at finding this translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey, whose translator was George Chapman, the classical scholar. Although the speaker of Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" incorrectly identifies Cortez as the first European to look upon the Pacific Ocean, John Keats' sonnet nevertheless has proven pleasing to many readers for many centuries.

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 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.

Reading of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

Commentary

John Keats' speaker takes his readers on a pleasant literary journey inspired by a new translation of the works of the Greek poet Homer, with whom the literary tradition of the Western world begins.

Octave: Dramatizing His Literary Journeys

The speaker, in the octave's first quatrain, announces that he is widely-read in the literatures world. The speaker then through metaphor dramatizes his literary journeys as "travel[ing] in realms of gold." He has thereby visited, "many goodly states and kingdoms."

The speaker asserts that he has visited many of the "western islands" off the coast of Greece, where the sun god, Apollo, would have held court, especially for poets. The second quatrain finds the speaker averring that the poet, "deep-brow'd Homer," narrated his verses in those very places. Homer held court, narrating his stories again and again to enchanted audiences.

The speaker then reveals that his appreciation of those magnificent works of Homer's poetry had been much less enthusiastic until he encountered the translation made by the current translator, George "Chapman speak[ing] out loud and bold."

Sestet: An Awe-Inspiring Translation

The speaker then chooses two other bits of information that help him show the drama and depth of awe he has felt with this new, improved translation. He compares that feeling to the feeling of an astronomer as the scientist watches while "a new planet swims" into view.

The elation of observing a new planet for the first time would no doubt be very intense, and this speaker's enthusiasm, he thinks, is equal to that of the astronomer. He also refers to the enthusiasm of the western explorers who originally discovered the Pacific Ocean.

Those explorers had at first believed that they had reached the Asian continent, in particular, India. However, because of their constant push in the westwardly direction, they came to look upon a whole new ocean—one of which heretofore they had remained unaware was separating them from their Asian goal.

The speaker thus also believes that his encountering Homer brought to him by the classical scholar, George Chapman, is equivalent to that magnificent discovery of the new ocean.

An Unfortunate Error

It is somewhat unfortunate that this otherwise fine poem reveals a Keatsian tenuous grasp of history. But the blooper does help emphasize the fact that readers must not reply on poets for historically accurate facts. Certain critics have posited the notion that the employment of the name "Cortez" suits the rhythm of the line better than the accurate name. They are thus willing to forsake the accuracy of history for the aesthetics of art—an unfortunate and even dangerous stance.

However, Keats surely did not intend to engage in any perfidy with his mistake; he probably thought he was correct in assigning Cortez the discovery. That actual first Spanish explorer to look upon the Pacific Ocean was Balboa, of course, not Cortez. Oddly enough, Keats did, however, correctly designate "Darien" as the mountain, from which the explorer Balboa first spied the Pacific.

Life Sketch of John Keats

John Keats' name is one of the most recognizable in the world of letters. As one the most accomplished and widely anthologized poets of the British Romantic Movement, the poet remains a marvel, having died at the early age of 25 and leaving a relatively scant body of work. That his reputation has grown more stellar through the centuries attests to the high value placed on his poetry. Readers have come to recognize that Keats works are always enjoyable, insightful, and pleasantly entertaining.

Early Years

John Keats was born in London, October 31, 1795. Keats' father was a livery-stable owner. His parents both died while Keats was still a child, his father when Keats was eight years old, and his mother when he was only fourteen. Two

London merchants took up the responsibility of raising the young Keats, after being assigned to the task by Keats' maternal grandmother. Thus Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell became the boy's principal guardians.

Abbey was a wealthy merchant dealing in tea and took on the main responsibility for Keats' rearing, while Sandell's presence was fairly minor. Keats attended the Clarke School at Enfield until he was fifteen years old. Then guardian Abbey ended the boy's attendance at that school so that Abbey could enroll Keats in medical study to become a licensed apothecary. Keats, however, decided to forgo that profession in favor of writing poetry.

First Publications

Lucky for Keats, he became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, an editor of influence at the Examiner. Hunt published Keats' two most widely anthologized sonnets, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" and "O Solitude." As Keats' mentor, Hunt also became the medium through which the Romantic poet gained acquaintance with the two most important literary figures of that period, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through the influence of that literary royalty, Keats was able to publish his first collection of poems in 1817, at the young age of 22.

Shelley recommended to Keats, likely because his young age, that the young poet should hold off on publishing until after he had amassed a more sizable collection of works. But Keats did not take that advice, perhaps out of the very fear that he would not live long enough to amass such a collection. He seemed sense that his life would be short.

Facing the Critics

Keats then published his 4000-line poem, Endymion, only a year after his first poems at been brought out. It appeared the Shelley's advice has been spot on when critics from the two most influential literary magazines of the period, The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, immediately attacked the young poet's herculean effort. Although Shelley agreed with the critics, he felt obliged to make it known that Keats was a talented poet despite that work. Shelley likely went too far and blamed Keats' worsening health issues of the critical attacks.

In the summer of 1818, Keats engaged in a walking tour in the north of England and into Scotland. His brother Tom was suffering from tuberculosis, so Keats retuned home to care for his ailing sibling. It was around his time that Keats met Fanny Brawne. The two fell in love, and the romance influenced some of Keats' best poems from 1818 to 1819. Also during this time, he was composing his piece titled "Hyperion," which is a Milton influenced Greek creation story. After his brother died, Keats ceased working on this creation myth. Later the next year, he took up the piece again, revising it as "The Fall of Hyperion." The piece remained unpublished until 1856, some 35 years after the poet's death.

One of Most Famous British Romantics

Keats published a further collection of poem in 1820, titled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. In addition to the three poems that make up the title of the collection, this volume includes his incomplete "Hyperion," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale," three of his most widely anthologized poems. This collection received great praise from such literary giants as Charles Lamb, and others, in addition to Hunt and Shelley—all wrote enthusiastic reviews of the collection. Even the incompleted "Hyperion" was eagerly accepted as one of the finest poetic achievements of British poetry.

Keats was now very ill with tuberculosis in its advanced stages. He and Fanny Brawne had continued to correspond, but because of Keats' ill health as well as the considerable time it took for him to engage his poetic muse, the two has long considered marriage an impossibility. Keats physician recommended that the poet seek a warm climate to alleviate suffering from his lung disease, so Keats relocated from cold, wet London to the warmth of Rome, Italy. The painter, Joseph Severn accompanied Keats to Rome.

Keats is one of the most famous names in the British Romantic Movement, along with, William Blake, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlotte Turner Smith, and William Wordsworth, despite Keats' dying at the young age of 25 years. The young poet succumbed to tuberculosis, the disease that had plagued him for several years, in Rome on February 23, 1821. He is buried in Campo Cestio, or the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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