On First Looking into Chapman's Homer Analysis

John Keats

The Poem

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a sonnet describing the excitement experienced by the narrator upon reading a translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.) by the sixteenth century poet George Chapman. Though it is often unwise to equate the narrator of a poem with the author, in this instance it seems appropriate to assume that John Keats himself is speaking of his own sense of amazement and delight in discovering the joys of reading Homer in such a vibrant English rendition.

The focus throughout the poem is on the feelings engendered in a person when a discovery is made. The narrator expresses himself directly to the reader, attempting to find parallels to explain what it feels like to make a great discovery for oneself. To make that feeling clear, the narrator speaks of himself as a traveler who has set out to explore uncharted lands—at least, uncharted by him. He portrays himself as someone experienced in visiting exotic places (“realms of gold,” in line 1) and as having seen “many goodly states and kingdoms” (line 2) among the “western islands” (line 3) that are inhabited by “bards” who pay homage to the god “Apollo” (line 4). The conscious reference to poets and to the Greek patron of poetry should suggest to readers that this is not a literal journey; instead, it is intended to represent the mental travel one undergoes when one enters the imaginative world of...

(The entire section is 427 words.)

Forms and Devices

Keats uses the form of the Italian sonnet to express his joy at discovering the wonders of the Homeric epic as Chapman presented it in his seventeenth century English translation. Invented by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) and first made popular in English by the sixteenth century lyricists Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542) and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517-1547), the Italian sonnet is divided into two parts: An eight-line quatrain usually sets forth a problem or a dilemma, and the six-line sestet offers some resolution. Keats follows this rhetorical pattern in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” Using the first eight lines to describe his experiences in reading poetry by comparing them to the wanderings of a traveler to many small islands, he then follows in the sestet with an analysis of the joy he felt in discovering Homer’s poetry by comparing it to the feelings of elation a scientist or explorer might feel upon first encountering a strange phenomenon. Keats follows the strict rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet, using only four rhymes for the entire poem: abba, abba, cdcdcd.

The dominant literary device in this poem is metaphor. Keats plays with the notion of comparison on many levels. The entire composition can be seen as an extended metaphor, in which the narrator—a reader of books—is compared to an explorer whose voyage is rewarded with a great discovery. Individual comparisons follow the lead of...

(The entire section is 460 words.)