On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats: Summary and Analysis

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer is among the earliest poetic attempts of Keats and was published in Poems (1817). The theme of the poem is Keats's amazement at the greatness, the range and the profundity of Homer which he experienced through a translation of Homer's epics by George Chapman. The sonnet is in many ways a representative piece and exhibits Keats's poetic genius.

John Keats (1795-1821)

The sonnet is Greek in execution and Petrarchan in form. The octave presents Keats's introduction to Homer by Chapman. In the sestet we find the poet's startled reaction to this remarkable imaginative landscape conveyed to us in terms of the astronomer and the explorer. The unity of the poem is deep and organic; the last line is implicit in the first, as a flower is implicit in the seed.

Keats says that he has long been an admirer of Greek literature, but he never got an opportunity to study the works of Homer, the great blind poet of Greece. He had the occasion to hear very graphic and interesting accounts of Homer's greatness as a poet, but since he had no knowledge of the Greek language he could not study Homer's great works. His first opportunity to have a peep into the greatness of Homer's works came when he read the translation of Homer's great epics by the Elizabethan poet Chapman. After reading Chapman's translation of Homer, he felt a thrill of joy running through his veins. He found something new which he had not experienced so far. His joy in reading Chapman's Homer was like the delight experienced by an astronomer when he discovered a new planet, or like the delight of Cortez, the explorer, who discovered the Pacific. Keats' delight in reading Chapman's Homer was no less than the joy felt by the astronomers or the explorers in discovering new planets and new lands.

For some readers, the poem is marked with a factual error which reminds us of the occasional superficiality of Keats's memory and of the rapid (and sometimes careless) way in which he composed his poems. The conquistador who discovered the Pacific when climbing the isthmus of Darien was not 'stout Cortez' but Balboa. Keats's error has not marred the poem for most readers, because most readers trust Keats's word. Those who know the error know a less satisfactory poem.

The secrets of the poem's power are interesting. We have a metaphorical exploration to describe the narrator's experience of reading various poets. Then, to account for the effect of reading Chapman's translation of Homer, we are referred to actual historic discoveries-the discovery of a new planet by some astronomer, and, more concretely and specifically, to the historic discovery of the Pacific by a conquistador and his followers. Thus, there is a fine interrelationship of abstract and concrete, and historic, literary exploration and topographical exploration, cultural discovery and territorial discovery. The paradox is that after the reading of poetry has been metaphorically associated to travel around a world, a historical example of travel and discovery is used to convey the shock of a literary discovery. The glowing, shimmery vagueness of the opening makes more startlingly realistic and precise the final close-up on the conquistador and his amazed followers; and that realistic vista of the group is after all, but a simile to convey the amazement of the solitary speaker. Ironically, Chapman's 'speaking out loud and bold' is likened to an event in which all were 'Silent'.

This sonnet shows Keats's admiration and regard for Homer's genius and his poetic art. He considers Homer’s kingdom as a kingdom of pure gold. One who moves about in this kingdom can drink deeply at the fountain of joy which Homer's kingdom has for all those who happen to travel in that land. Keats is very much indebted to the Elizabethan poet Chapman, who introduced him to this land of gold. This appreciation both for Homer as well as Chapman is presented by the poet in these two lines

"Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold".

 Chapman's translation of Homer was really praiseworthy and Keats was perfectly justified in calling Chapman's translation and his verse as "loud and bold". This sonnet shows that Keats is both a lover of the Greeks and the Elizabethans. It has been suggested that Keats was a Greek born in the nineteenth century. But this reveals half the truth about Keats. No doubt, Keats was a great lover of the Greeks, but at the same time he was equally interested in Elizabethan poetry.

This sonnet reveals both the aspects of Keats's genius; his Hellenism as well his love for the Elizabethans. That he loved Homer and his poetry, the various legends and stories, myths and heroic accounts which Homer sang, shows his love for the Greek way of life. But at the same time he had liking for Chapman and the rich and sonorous ways in which he presented Homer to the English readers.

Keats maintains throughout this sonnet the imagery traveler and the explorer in search of gold. The richness of the background of the of imagery becomes patent when we keep in view the sixteenth century when the Spaniards set out in quest of the realms of gold, popularly known as 'El Dorado'. Like the explorers and navigators of Spain, Keats also had been in quest of beauty. In his exploration and search for 'the wide expanse' where 'deep browed' Homer ruled as his domain, he was guided by Chapman and ultimately he was successful in discovering the kingdom of Homer. Keats imagines himself no less fortunate than the explorers. This joy at the discovery of Homer's greatness through Chapman is fittingly presented by him by comparing himself with the astronomer who discovered a new star and Balboa who discovered the Pacific. The concluding lines of the poem bring before us Keats's feeling of delight and wonder at the presentation of Homer's greatness by Chapman and this delight is richly presented by the poet in two fitting comparisons that of the astronomer and the explorer of the Pacific.

Keats's effort was always to take us from the humdrum world of reality to the land of imagination, beauty and joy. He took us to the medieval world, the world of explorers, the world of Greek poets and by presenting these new glimpses of the past he made us feel less forlorn in life. He keeps us in a world of joy, beauty and legend, and enraptured by the delights of this new world, we entirely forget the worries and anxieties of life. The sonnet does not keep us to the plain of stern and stark realities of the world, but takes us to a new world of joy, wonder and delight, where we forget for the time being the sorrows and afflictions of our life. We are taken in this sonnet to many goodly states and kingdoms and to 'realm gold'. Travelling in these lands where 'in fealty to Apollo hold' we forget the worries and anxieties of our daily life. Then we are taken to the old, remote times when explorers were setting out for discovering new lands and when a greater part of the world was still undiscovered. There was romance in such explorations and Keats pictures for our delight the experience of wonder, excitement and thrill which Bolboa and his men felt while exploring the Pacific Ocean.

The sonnet is rich in poetic expressions and the felicity of phrase-making. Keats always excels in the presentation of his thoughts in the most suitable and appropriate language. In his poetry more is meant than meets the ear. There is wonderful suggestiveness, and the lines suggest emotions and feelings which are not clearly presented in poetry.

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Sharma, K.N. "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 9 Aug. 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/on-first-looking-into-chapmans-homer.html.