On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
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On First Looking into Chapman's Homer is a sonnet by English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821), written in October 1816. It tells of the author's astonishment at reading the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer as freely translated by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman.
Keats' generation was familiar enough with the polished translations by 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 his friend from schooldays at Enfield, Charles Cowden Clarke, and 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." When this poem was first published, critics drew attention to the fact that Keats was not classically educated, depending on a translation of Homer rather than being able to read the Greek original. Keats was deeply upset at being rejected for reasons of social class, but this did not stop him using classical themes in his later work.
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 Cortéz and Balboa to the New World, an example of submerged imagery behind the text, which is typical of Keats' technique.
"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.
This sonnet is a Petrarchan sonnet, divided into an octave and a sestet. After the main idea has been introduced and the image played upon in the octave, the poem undergoes a volta, a "turn" in the persona's train of thought. The volta, typical of Italian sonnets, is put very effectively to use by Keats as he refines on 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.
... and from the local Star A curio: Red Sox beat Yanks 5-4 On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door.
Arthur Ransome referred to the poem at the beginning of his children's classic novel Swallows and Amazons, which is based on the conceit of English schoolchildren on holiday in the Lake District treating it as an opportunity for exploration just like stout Cortez upon a peak in Darien.