On First Looking into Chapman's Homer: Summary & Analysis

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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.

Introduction

      This is a perfect sonnet of the Italian type. It was written in 1815 when Keats was only twenty; in it, the poet pays the finest tribute to Homer, and expresses his feelings of joy when he read the Homeric epics in the translations of Chapman; for though by nature Keats was thoroughly imbued with the Greek spirit, he had no knowledge of the Greek language and so he could not read Homer in original Greek.

Summary

      Keats speaks of his reading of poetry under the similitude of a journey through rich countries (which he compares to 'realms of gold'). In the course of this journey, he has often heard of the Illiad and the Odyssey (the ‘wide expanse’) ruled by ‘deep-browed Homer; but to him, ignorant of Greek, they have been sealed books. Now, however, in Chapman’s translation of Homer, he has learned to know the great original. He compares his feelings to those of an astronomer who has discovered a new star, or to those with which the Spaniards caught sight of the hitherto unknown Pacific from some height in Darien.

Critical Analysis

      Keats was by instinct a lover of Greek arts and the Greek way of thinking. He was by his spirit a pagan suckled in a creed outworn, that Wordsworth only longed to be, out of despair at the materialism of his Christian countrymen. Naturally, therefore, Keats flew into rapturous excitement to find a poetic kinship between himself and Homer, the prince of poets. His soul is fully charged with the splendor of Chapman’s Homer. His Hellenic spirit delights to travel into the vast expanse of that first of poets, who truly reigned in fealty to Apollo, while his romantic imagination leads him to draw a figure from the system of medieval land-tenure. Romantic associations are also conjured up in the imagery of the astronomer and the explorer, whom Keats brings in for suitable comparisons. With a natural instinct for fine words which are in themselves picture and ‘idea in this perfect sonnet’ ‘the poet, pours forth his single thought into the mold of the octave and rounds it off in the concluding sestet with a sense of absolute completeness’. It ‘dies away into silence, leaving us still listening’.

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