June 9, 2021

From Gerald R. Lucas

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer[1]
By: John Keats (1816)

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been[2]
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.[3]
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 5
That deep-brow’d Homer[4] ruled as his demesne;[5]
Yet[6] did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt[7] I like some watcher of the skies
     When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez[8] when with eagle eyes[9]
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.[10]

notes and commentary

  1. Keats was introduced to George Chapman’s translation of Homer by his mentor Charles Cowden Clarke in October 1816. Chapman’s lose translation is written in iambic pentameter which more closely aligns the verse with English, here capturing and exciting Keats’ imagination. The men read through the night and Keats delivered this sonnet the next morning. Read the background on Wikipedia.
  2. These first lines seem to allude to the famous travels of Odysseus in the Odyssey after the Trojan war.
  3. Bards would be the poets who have dedicated their lives to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry and music. Another idea suggests itself: Apollo might also be likened to reason, whereas Keats seems to place the experience of poetry above the mechanics of poetry here, a Romantic idea that could liken the poet’s god more to the madness of Dionysus than to the measured Apollo. The poem emphasizes emotion and epiphany over reason.
  4. Homer is most known for his two epic poems, the Iliad (the poem of war) and the Odyssey (the poem of peace). This poem emphasizes the latter in which Odysseus is waylayed by Poseidon, who Odysseus angered by insulting and mutilating his son Polyphemus. Odysseus takes ten years to return to his land of Ithaca, where he is king.
  5. A realm or feudal land managed by a lord. Today we might say “Homer rules!” Remember, too, the Romantic poets often used exotic, distant lands as settings which provided a contrast to their contemporary lives and allowed the use of more fantastical elements to pique the emotional impact of the verse.
  6. “Yet,” indicating a sonnet turn or volta, shows the poet is about to go in a different direction, or make an opposite point.
  7. Here, “heard” and “felt” contrasts with his second-hand experience—“been told”—in line 5. With Chapman’s translation, Keats directly experiences Homer, rather than having passively been told about him.
  8. Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) was likely the first European to see the Pacific Ocean, not the conquistador who conquered Mexico, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547). But here Keats, rather than making a mistake, is not necessarily concerned with discoveries, but in seeing something again with new, more experienced eyes. Notice that Cortez stared at in sublime contemplation rather than discovers. If we tease out the metaphor, then, Keats had been familiar with Homer before Chapman, but it’s only through this new translation that Keats is so affected by Homer.
  9. His eyes are keen and clear, able to penetrate the significance of the scene.
  10. Literally, this could be a reference to the Darien Mountain range that runs the length of Panama. A “peak in Darien” experience could be related to a near-death experience “in which the experiencer encounters a deceased person that the experiencer had no normal way of knowing had died” (Ohkado, Masayuki (Summer 2013). "On the Term 'Peak in Darien' Experience" (PDF). Journal of Near-Death Studies. 31 (4): 203. Retrieved 2021-07-25.). I see this as part of the shared sublimity of the men seeing the grandeur and expanse of nature, like looking at a glorious sunset. This might be an expression of the Romantic idea of “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that are “recollected in tranquility” as Wordsworth explains in his preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Here we have an epiphany akin to a religious experience. Keats reading Chapman’s translation of Homer is Cortez experiencing the sublimity of the Pacific Ocean.