On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

by John Keats

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

“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 literature.

The narrator describes his journey around those imaginary islands, noting finally that, though he is quite a veteran of such traveling, he had never set foot on the land ruled by the revered Homer until introduced there by Chapman, who serves as a kind of herald into the epic bard’s court. Through Chapman’s introduction, the narrator is able to breathe in the “pure serene” (line 8)—literally, the stimulating quality of the air in that favored land, but metaphorically, the exhilarating atmosphere that Homer’s poetry creates.

The results of the narrator’s arrival in the land of Homer are almost overwhelming. He feels himself like a scientist who discovers a new planet or like an explorer setting foot in the new world of America and seeing the hitherto unknown sights there. He compares himself specifically to Hernando Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico: The experience of being enveloped in the land of Homer (the environment created by Homer within his epic poem) is much like that felt by Cortés and his men when they first saw the Pacific Ocean; it leaves the traveler speechless.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

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 that general parallel. The experience of reading is described as traveling “in the realms of gold.” Individual works are compared to “many western islands” which “bards in fealty to Apollo hold”—a suggestion that writers are like so many landholders who owe allegiance to a great lord (in this case, the Greek god who was the patron of the arts). Epic poetry, one form of the literary art, is described in terms of a great tract of land, “one wide expanse” (line 5), and the Greek poet Homer, whose two epics serve as models for subsequent works in the genre, is lord of that realm. Two specific comparisons are used to describe the reader’s excitement at discovering Homer through Chapman’s translation. First, the narrator compares himself to an astronomer (“some watcher of the skies,” line 9) who notices a new planet through his telescope. Then he likens his excitement to that which must have been felt by the Europeans who traveled to the new world and first looked upon the Pacific Ocean (lines 11-14). In both cases, the poet wishes to evoke a feeling of awe at the discovery of such a magnificent natural phenomenon. Keats suggests that those same feelings are experienced by the reader who picks up a copy of Chapman’s translation of Homer and begins to read.

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