On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
is a sonnet
by English Romantic poet John Keats
) written in October 1816. It tells of the author's astonishment at reading the works of the ancient Greek
as freely translated
by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman
| On First Looking into Chapman's Homer Much have I traveled 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-browed 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 stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The poem has become an often-quoted canon
, cited to demonstrate the emotional power of a great work of art, and the ability of great art to create an epiphany
in its beholder.
Keats' generation was familiar enough with the polished literary translations of John Dryden
and Alexander Pope
, which gave Homer an urbane gloss akin to Virgil
, but in blank verse or heroic couplets. Chapman's vigorous and earthy paraphrase (1616) was put before Keats by Charles Cowden Clarke
, a friend from his days as a pupil at Enfield
. They sat up together till daylight to read it: "Keats shouting with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination. At ten o'clock the next morning, Mr. Clarke found the sonnet on his breakfast-table."
Of the many islands of the Aegean, the one which bards most in fealty owe to Apollo, leader of the inspiring Muses, is Delos, the sacred island that was Apollo's birthplace. The island-dotted Aegean lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean ; thus when Keats calls these western islands, he tacitly contrasts them with the East Indies, the goal that drew adventurers like doughty Cortés and Balboa to the New World, an example of submerged imagery behind the text, which is typical of Keats' technique.
The "new planet" was Uranus, discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, Astronomer Royal to George III, the first planet unknown to astronomers of Antiquity. It was a new world in the heavens.
"Darién" is in the east of Panama. Also, the alert reader will notice that it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa who first saw the Pacific, not Hernán Cortés. Keats had been reading William Robertson's History of America and apparently confused two scenes there described: Balboa's discovery of the Pacific and Cortés's first view of the Valley of Mexico. The Balboa passage: "At length the Indians assured them, that from the top of the next mountain they should discover the ocean which was the object of their wishes. When, with infinite toil, they had climbed up the greater part of the steep ascent, Balboa commanded his men to halt, and advanced alone to the summit, that he might be the first who should enjoy a spectacle which he had so long desired. As soon as he beheld the South Sea stretching in endless prospect below him, he fell on his knees, and lifting up his hands to Heaven, returned thanks to God, who had conducted him to a discovery so beneficial to his country, and so honourable to himself. His followers, observing his transports of joy, rushed forward to join in his wonder, exultation, and gratitude" (Vol. III). John Keats simply remembered the image, rather than the actual historical facts.
Clarke noticed the error immediately, but Keats chose to leave it in, presumably because historical accuracy would have necessitated an unwanted extra syllable in the line.
One change that Keats did make was to alter "wondr'ing eyes" (in the original manuscript) to "eagle eyes".
This poem is a Petrarchan
sonnet, divided into an octave
and a sestet
, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-d-c-d
. After the main idea has been introduced and the image played upon in the octave, the poem undergoes a volta
, a change in the persona's train of thought. The volta, typical of Italian sonnets, is put very effectively to use by Keats as he refines his previous idea. While the octave offers the poet as a literary explorer, the volta prompts in the discovery of Chapman's Homer, the subject of which is further expanded through the use of imagery and comparisons which convey the poet's sense of awe at the discovery.
References to the poem
- ... and from the local Star
- A curio: Red Sox beat Yanks 5-4
- On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door.
- Myles na Gopaleen used Keats and Chapman as running characters in his Cruskeen Lawn columns in the Irish Times.
- Arthur Ransome uses two references from the poem in his children's books. The Swallows and Amazons series is based on the conceit of English schoolchildren treating their holidays as opportunities for exploration, just like stout Cortez upon a peak in Darien.
- P.G. Wodehouse in his review of the first Flashman novel that came to his attention used a phrase from the poem: "Now I understand what that ‘when a new planet swims into his ken’ excitement is all about.
University Challenge - 2 lines used in the opening credits of 2007-2008 series