The sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ is written by Keats when he was still a student at school. George Chapman (1554 – 1634) was an English poet and dramatist of the Elizabethan age, who translated Homer’s works in 1596. Keats read Chapman’s translation of Homer for the first time on a night in 1815 when he and his friend, Cowden Clarke spent the whole night reading it. The next morning the friend found this sonnet at the breakfast table at 10 O’clock, expressing Keats’s feelings on first looking at Chapman’s Homer. The poet says that he experienced new sensations on reading Homer in Chapman’s translation.
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Analysis of On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
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:
In the beautiful sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, Keats expresses his intellectual and literary pleasures that he derived from reading of ballads and romances of the olden times. These lines were inspired by his first reading of Chapman’s translation of homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In the octave of the sonnet, Keats intends to express the contrast between his reading of other romance and this first reading of Chapman’s translation of Homer’s epic poems.
Keats says that he has read a number of books of adventurous and romantic tales. His reading has been like traveling in the different countries of the mind – the countries of imagination and fancy. From these travels, he has derived inestimable pleasure. They have given him pleasure as much as the sight of the realm of gold would give a poor man. Further, Keats says that he has explored the noble and pleasure-giving world of adventurous romances. In his imagination, he has also been to the world of the romances delineating the tales of myth related to the people of the romantically enchanting islands on the western coast of England and Scotland such as Hebrides and others.
Keats also refers to romantic poems dealing with the eerie and mystical life in the western islands. Earlier, Keats had a cursory acquaintance with Homer. But his reading of Chapman’s translation aroused his passion in full intensity. He knew the taste of Homer, but through Chapman, the great Greek poet became more delicious. Keats could realize the quality of “pure serenity” of the poetry of Homer only when he read the Greek epic in Chapman’s translation. Keats praises Chapman’s unconventional and bold approach to Homer.
When Keats read Chapman’s translation of Homer, he experienced a new sensation. Earlier, he had enjoyed the beauties of other poets, but had no opportunity to visit Homer’s kingdom. But his reading of Chapman’s Homer opened the ‘realm of gold’ to him. His quest for poetic beauty and the delight he experienced in the fulfillment is compared to the joy and delight experienced by an astronomer when he discovered a new planet.
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.
Keats’s reading of Chapman’s Homer unfolds new worlds of imagination and fancy to him. He experienced new sensations. His readings of classics had been like traveling in the different countries of the mind. From these travels, he had derived inestimable pleasure. But his reading of Chapman’s translation of Homer’s epics gave him greater pleasure than he received from earlier readings. He was highly inspired by his reading of Homer through Chapman.
In these lines of ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, Keats compares his excitement to that of an astronomer when a new star falls within the range of his telescope. The astronomer is extremely excited at his new discovery. His joy knows no bounds because he has seen anew star. Similarly, the discoverer is equally happy at his discovery of new land. Vasco Nunez de Balboa looked at the Pacific with sharp eyes. He was discovering new land. His companion sailors were in a state of utter excitement. They were conjecturing the nature and importance of this discovery. They were tongue-tied with amazement while they were on a summit in the Isthmus of Panama.
These lines reveal Keats’s intense attachment to romance. The image of the legendary hero with a fiery war-like spirit standing silent and reflective on a hill-top and observing the country to be conquered is suggestive of the joy of impending triumph.
Cortez (Herman Cortez) was a famous Spanish soldier and conqueror of the early 16th century. His legendary victory was over Mexico in 1519. Darien is a stretch of land on the eastern part of the isthmus joining Mexico and South America. It is very important in the history of geographical discoveries.
John Keats composed ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ in October 1816, Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, a great admirer of John Keats, wrote of the poet and poem thus: “Unable as he was to read the original Greek, Homer had as yet been to him a name of solemn significance, and nothing more. His friend and literary counselor, Mr. (Cowden) Clarke, happened to borrow Chapman’s translation, and having invited Keats to read it with him one evening, hey continued their study till daylight. He (Clarke) describes Keats’s delight as intense, even to shouting aloud, as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination. It was fortunate that he was introduced to that august heroic company through an interpretation, which preserves so much of that ancient simplicity, and in a meter that, after various attempts including that of the hexameter, still appears the best adapted, from its pause and its length, to represent in English the Greek-epic verse.
An accomplished scholar may perhaps be unwilling, or unable, to understand how thoroughly the imaginative reader can fill up the necessary defects of any translation which adheres, as far as it may be, to the tone and spirit of the original, and does not introduce fresh elements of thought, incongruous ornaments, or cumbrous additions, be it bald and tame, he can clothe and color it – be it harsh or ill-jointed, he can perceive the smoothness and completeness that has been lost; only let it not be like Pope’s Homer, a new work with an old name – a portrait, itself of considerable power and beauty, but in which the features of an individual are scarce to be recognized. The Sonnet in which these his first impressions are concentrated was left the following day on Mr. Clarke’s table, realizing the idea of that form of verse expressed by Keats himself in his third Epistle as: “Swelling loudly, Up to its climax, and then dying proudly.”
Life and Works of John Keats
Born in 1795, John Keats belongs to the younger generation of the Romantic poets. Though he lived a short life, his contribution to the poetry world and his achievement in this field has been all the more remarkable. Keats died of consumption before he had completed his twenty-sixth year, and is, therefore, in Shelley’s phrase, one of “the inheritors of unfulfilled renown.” Keats was neither a rebel nor a utopian dreamer. According to him, “Poetry should be, not the vehicle of philosophy, religious teaching, or social and political theories, but the incarnation of beauty.” He is regarded as the greatest writer of odes in English. Though Wordsworth and Shelley have also written some remarkable odes, no other English poet has returned to this form so often and with so much success.