On First Looking into Chapman's Homer Themes
by John Keats

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 512 words.)