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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

(John Keats, 1795-1821, English Romantic poet)

John Keats is a Romantic poet like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and John Clare.

Writing in the Petrarchan form, he composed the sonnet below after his friend Charles Cowden Clarke had introduced him to the translation of the Greek poet Homer by the Elizabethan dramatist George Chapman (circa 1559-1634). Clarke recalled how Keats “shouted with delight” at certain passages and then went home to write the poem.

“It is not hard to imagine Clarke’s amazement as he read the sonnet over,” Aileen Ward writes in John Keats: The Making of a Poet. “The poem was a miracle; not simply because of the mastery of form, or because Keats was only twenty when he wrote it, or because he wrote it in the space of an hour or two after a night without sleep [reading Chapman]. Rather because nothing in his earlier poetry gave any promise of this achievement: the gap between this poem and his summer work could only be leaped by genius. . . . The unity of form and feeling that begins in the first line and swells in one crescendo of excitement to the final crashing silence was instantaneous and unimprovable.”


Much have I travel’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 Homer¹ 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 Cortez² 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 Darien³.

¹ deep-brow’d Homer – Homer, the great Greek intellect
² Cortez – an error of no import to this poem: it was the Spanish explorer Balboa, not Cortez, who first gazed upon the Pacific after crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1513
³ Darien – an area in Panama


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