On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

by John Keats

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is intended primarily to give readers a sense of the excitement that comes from discovering for themselves the works of a great author. Concurrently—and this is a point not often stressed—Keats suggests that the delight in this discovery is often an experience dependent on circumstances beyond those over which the author himself or herself has had direct control; in this case, the narrator’s experience comes from reading the Homeric epic in translation. It is important, then, to recall that it is “Chapman’s Homer” that excites the narrator; the translator has had a major role in creating the experience by serving as a bridge in communicating the story through language the reader understands. The impact of the reading experience, which Keats describes metaphorically as “breath[ing] the pure serene” air in a beautiful land, comes not directly from Homer’s Greek, but from Chapman’s rendition of that Greek into polished English verse.

Keats wants readers to realize the impact that a great work of literature can have. There is a clear sense that the narrator has come to his reading of Homer with some anticipation—“Oft,” he says, “had I been told” of the greatness of the Greek epic (line 5). Nevertheless, the experience itself far surpasses any second-hand account; hearing of something is no substitute for experiencing it oneself. The two examples in the poem’s sestet are intended to convey the sense of wonderment that can come only from direct experience. Keats wants readers to understand that reading great literature can bring the same kind of excitement to them that scientific discovery and travel can engender.

On a larger scale, the poem deals with the process of discovery itself, a human activity that has excited men since the dawn of recorded history (and before, no doubt). It is important to note that “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is about the process of discovery that every individual goes through when having any kind of experience for the first time—no matter how many people have had the experience before. This distinction is important, for it explains what many critics have considered the great “mistake” in the final lines of the poem: the apparent misidentification of Cortés as the first European to “discover” the Pacific Ocean. Because historians usually attribute the “discovery” of the Pacific to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, some scholars have accused Keats of not knowing his history. That may be true, but it would have no bearing on the meaning of this poem. There is no suggestion in the poem that Cortés or his men (both mentioned in lines 11-12) are the first to see the Pacific; rather, the implication is that they are viewing it for the first time in their lives. Similarly, Keats is suggesting, the reader who comes upon great works of literature for the first time will experience a sense of awe and wonder at the power of literature to excite them and to make a difference in their lives.

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