On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, by John Keats
This Chapman’s Homer Study Guide is by Dr. Lilia Melani
Classification of poem
Type of poem: lyric poem
Type of lyric poem: sonnet
Type of sonnet: Italian or Petrarchan sonnet
Contents of this Page
Definitions and Allusions
Analysis of Poem
The Octet (Lines 1-8)
The Sestet (Lines 9-14)
Keats was so moved by the power and aliveness of Chapman’s translation of Homer that he wrote this sonnet –after spending all night reading Homer with a friend. The poem expresses the intensity of Keats’s experience; it also reveals how passionately he cared about poetry. To communicate how profoundly the revelation of Homer’s genius affected him, Keats uses imagery of exploration and discovery. In a sense, the reading experience itself becomes a Homeric voyage, both for the poet and the reader.
Written in October 1816, this is the first entirely successful (surviving) poem he wrote. John Middleton Murry called it “one of the finest sonnets in the English language.”
Definitions and Allusions
The lines of the sonnet appear in the left column; those lines are explained in the right column. Words in purple are explained in the right column.
|Lines of the Poem||Explanation of Lines|
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold
This phrase can be read in two closely related ways, (1) as the world of imagination and/or (2) as the world of poetry. The difference in meaning between these two readings is a matter of emphasis, because poetry is produced by the imagination.
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Having a pleasing appearance or character; large or extensive
Round many western islands have I been
This line suggests the voyages of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey.
Which bards1 in fealty2 to Apollo3 hold.
1 A professional poet who composed and sang songs about heroes
2 Devoted fidelity or loyalty, originally the allegiance of a tenant (or vassal) to his lord
3 Greek god of poetry and music
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer1 ruled as his demesne2
1 Homer, the great Greek poet, wrote two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, His date is placed anywhere betweeen 1050 and 850 B.C.
2 Realm or kingdom
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
A bright clear sky; clear air
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
George Chapman (1559-1634) was a poet and playwright.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781 by F.W. Herschel.
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Range of sight or knowledge
Or like stout1 Cortez2 when with eagle eyes
1 Strong, brave, bold (not, in this context, fat!)
2 Balboa, not Cortez, discovered the Pacific Ocean.
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise
Guess or conjecture
Silent upon a peak in Darien.
The Darien mountain range runs the length of the Isthmus of Darien, now called Panama.
As a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” falls into two parts–an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet describes Keats’s reading experience before reading Chapman’s translation and the sestet contrasts his experience of reading it.
The octet stresses Keats’s wide reading experience; for example he says “MUCH have I TRAVELED,” meaning that he has read a great deal. What other words/phrases in the octet also indicate his extensive traveling (reading) experience? Note he has traveled both on land and sea.
The Octet (lines 1-8)
|Much have I traveled in the realms of gold|
The phrase “realms of gold” functions in a number of ways. “Realms” starts the image cluster of locations–“states,” “kingdoms” “demesnes.” These words, as well as “in fealty,” suggest political organization. The phrase also symbolizes the world of literature or, if you prefer, imagination. What is Keats saying about the value of this world., i.e., why describe it as realms of gold, rather than of lead or brass, for instance? Why does he use the plural “realmS,” rather than the singular “realm”?
Finally, “realms of gold” anticipates the references in the sestet to the Spanish Conquistadores in the New World, for whom the lust for gold was a primary motive. The repetition of “l” sounds in “travelled,” “realms,” and “gold” emphasizes the idea and ties the words together.
| And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;|
| Round many western islands have I been|
|Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.|
The high, even holy function that poets fulfill is indicated by their being the servants of a god, Apollo, and having sworn to follow him (with the suggestion of their having consecrated their lives to him). “Fealty,” in addition, indicates their dedication to Apollo and, by extension, to their calling, the writing of poetry.
With the reference to poets, Keats moves from those who read (or who experience through poets’ imaginations) to those who create poetry (or who express their own imaginations). Then the poem narrows to one particular poet who rules the realm of poetry, i.e., whose genius and inspired poetry raise him above even dedicated poets.
|Oft of one wide expanse had I been told|
To emphasize the extent of Homer’s genius and his literary accomplishments, Keats modifies “expanse” (which means “extensive”) with an adjective which also means “extensive,” i.e., the adjective “wide.”
| That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;|
“Deep-browed” refers to Homer’s intellect. (We use the adjective “deep” colloquially with a similar meaning today, in such phrases as “a deep thought” or “she’s a deep thinker.”)
| Yet did I never breathe its pure serene|
By breathing in the “pure serene,” he makes it a part of himself; would the same effect be achieved if he walked or ran through Homer’s demesne (his poetry)? What is Keats saying about the necessity of poetry (how important is breathing)?
This line and the next line contrast Keats’s knowledge of Homer’s reputation and his experiencing the genius of Homer’s poetry in Chapman’s translation. What are your assocations with the words “pure” and “serene”– positive, negative, neutral? Note that these words apply to both the poetry of Homer and the translation by Chapman.
|Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold;|
|The Sestet (lines 9-14)|
|Then felt I like some watcher of the skies|
“Then” moves the poem to a new idea, to the consequences or the results of reading Chapman’s translation. At the same time, “then” connects the sestet to the octet and so provides a smooth transition from one section of the poem to the other. In this line and the next line, reading Chapman’s translation has revealed a new dimension or world to Keats, which he expresses by extending the world to include the heavens.
| When a new planet swims into his ken;|
To get a sense of Keats’ excitement and joy at the discovery of Homer via Chapman, imagine the moment of looking up into the sky and seeing a planet–which has been unknown till that moment. Also imagine the moment of struggling up a mountain, reaching the top and beholding–not land, as you expected–but an expanse of ocean, reaching to the horizon and beyond. What would that moment of discovery, that moment of revelation of a new world, that moment of enlarging the world you knew, feel like?
The planet “swims” into view. Though the astronomer is actively looking (as Keats actively read), yet the planet, which has always been there, comes into his view. The image of swimming is part of the water imagery, starting with the voyages of line 3 to the Pacific Ocean in the ending.
|Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes|
Since the discovery of the Pacific is a visual experience, Keats emphasizes Cortez’s eyes. What kind of eyesight does an eagle have (is it different from that of an owl or a bat, for instance)?
| He stared at the Pacific–and all his men|
Why does Cortez “stare,” rather than just look at or glance at the Pacific? Does Keats’s error in identifying Cortez as discovering the ocean detract significantly from this poem?
|Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–|
What is the impact of this discovery on Cortez’s men? Why are they silent? Why do they look at each other with “WILD surmise”? What does the adjective “wild” suggest about their feelings on seeing the Pacific, about the impact of that discovery on them?
| Silent, upon a peak in Darien.|
The image of Cortez and his men standing overwhelmed is sharply presented. Note the contrast of Chapman’s “loud and bold voice” in the last line of the octet and the “silence” of Cortez and his men in the last line of the poem.
Many thanks to Dr. Lilia Melani, a member of the English Department at Brooklyn College (City University of New York), for graciously granting permission to reproduce this resource, which originally appeared on her website.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work.
Other John Keats poems