On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

by John Keats
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What is the main theme of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by John Keats?

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Certainly, the poem expresses the extreme benefits conferred on the individual by the practice of reading. This speaker has read a lot, and yet, when he first read Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, he says he felt that he had become “like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken” or like some great explorer, like “stout Cortez,” when he discovers a new land. The speaker is significantly affected by what he’s read, proving that reading can absolutely be a transformative process for an individual. It can make one feel that one can traverse space and time, going to new places and seeing peoples one has never glimpsed before and, perhaps, even learning more about oneself in the process of learning about the world in a new way. The poem also conveys the idea that, no matter how much one has read, no matter how educated and versed in various genres and plots, literature can still shock and surprise a person with its variety, meaning, and importance.

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This poem narrates a memory of the speaker when he first read a translation of The Illiad and the effect that this text had upon him. He perceived the poetry so profoundly that this moment is compared to the excitement that explorers feel when they look upon a tract of land that they have never seen before. Note how Keats presents this simile:

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 stared at the Pacific...

Clearly then the theme of this poem is the way that reading and literature allows us to travel in "the realms of gold." For Romantics, poetry was the true adventure, and the best poetry allowed you to enter new worlds of thrilling voyages and explorations. Thus the theme of this excellent poem is that of adventure through imagination and the way that literature is the key to enable us to engage in such flights of fancy and adventures, just as if we were actual adventurers ourselves.

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