George Chapman

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George Chapman Poetry: British Analysis

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George Chapman’s poetry is unusually diversified. It does not reveal a consistent individual style, technique, or attitude, so that an initial reading does not immediately divulge a single creative mind at work. A skilled experimenter, Chapman tried the Metaphysical style of John Donne and the satirical heroic couplet in a manner anticipating John Dryden, and in his translations reverted to the archaic medieval fourteener. His poetry is also unusually difficult. His allusions are often esoteric, his syntax strained or convoluted, and his underlying ideas verging on the occult. His is not primarily a lyrical voice, and his verses are almost never musical. For Chapman, the content of poetry is supreme, and the poet’s moral calling is profound. His work, in consequence, is essentially didactic.

Chapman’s poetics, as expressed in scattered epistles and dedications attached to his verses, help clarify his intentions and to reveal the purpose behind what may strike the reader as willful obscurity. Philosophically, Chapman was a Platonist, and he was well read in Neoplatonic writings. His poetic theories are a metaphorical counterpart to Platonic dualism. The fact that precious minerals are buried in the ground rather than easily available on the surface suggests to Chapman that the spirit of poetry must lie beneath the obvious surface meaning of the words. The body of poetry may delight the ear with its smooth, melodious lines, but the soul speaks only to the inward workings of the mind. Thus, Chapman rejects the Muse that will sing of love’s sensual fulfillment in favor of his mistress Philosophy, who inspires the majesty and riches of the mind. The reader must not be misled by the outer bark or rind of the poems, to use another of his analogies, but should rather seek the fruit of meaning deep within. Scorning the profane multitude, Chapman consecrates his verses to those readers with minds willing to search.

Allegory and emblem

Two of the techniques that Chapman employs most often to achieve his somewhat arcane didactic purposes are allegory and emblem. His poems are frequently allegorical, both in the sense that he introduces personified abstractions as spokespeople for his ideas and in the sense that a given event or personage stands for another. He reveals his allegorical cast of mind in dealing with such objects as love, war, or learning by envisioning them as personified abstractions, clothing them in appropriate iconographical garments, and situating them in emblematic tableaux. His use of emblems thus grows out of his allegorical mode of thought. Drawing on the popular emblem books of the Renaissance, he depicts scenes or images from nature or mythology as iconographic equivalents of ideas. A torn scarf, for example, becomes a confused mind, and an uprooted tree a fallen hero. The technique is symbolic and highly visual, but static rather than dramatic.

Since Chapman regarded his Homeric translations as his major poetic mission in life, he did not consider his own poetry as a great achievement. He regarded the calling of the poet with great seriousness, however, and his poems as a result have much of importance to say. In spite of their difficulty and partly because of it, his unusual poems speak to the sensitive reader willing to dig below the often formidable surface.

The Shadow of Night

Chapman’s first published poem, The Shadow of Night , consists of two complementary poems, “Hymnus in Noctem” and “Hymnus in Cynthiam.” The first is a lament, the second a hymn of praise. The first is concerned with contemplation, the second with action. Both celebrate the intellect and assert the superiority of darkness over daylight. Sophisticated in structure,...

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esoteric in allusion, and steeped in the philosophy of Neoplatonism, the work is a challenge to the general reader.

The object of lament in “Hymnus in Noctem” is the fallen state of the world. Chapman contrasts the debased world of the present day, rife with injustice, to the primal chaos that existed when night was ruler. In that time before creation, there was harmony, for chaos had soul without body; but now bodies thrive without soul. Humans are now blind, experiencing a “shadow” night of intellect that is a reversal of genuine night. The poet then calls upon the spirit of night to send Furies into the world to punish humans for their rampant wickedness. He will aid the Furies by castigating sinful humankind in his verses and by writing tragedies aimed at moral reformation.

As night is praised for its creative darkness, the source of inner wisdom, daylight is regarded negatively, associated with whoredom, rape, and unbridled lust. Chapman warns the great virgin queen, here equated with the moon goddess, that an unwise marriage would eclipse her virtue, removing her from the wise mysteries of the night and exposing her to brash daylight. The poem ends with an emblematic scene, as Cynthia appears in an ivory chariot, accompanied by comets, meteors, and lightning.

“Hymnus in Cynthiam” proclaims praise for Cynthia as pattern of all virtue, wisdom, and beauty, at once moon goddess, divine soul of the world, and Queen Elizabeth I. Cynthia is portrayed here in her daytime role, and the active life of daylight is contrasted to night as the time for contemplation. During the day, Cynthia descends from the moon to earth, where she fashions a nymph named Euthymia, or Joy, out of meteoric stuff. Out of the same vapors, she creates a hunter and his hounds. Chapman’s narrative of a shadowy hunting scene is probably based on the myth of Acteon and his hounds. The poet’s allegorical version of the myth depicts the hunt as appropriate to the daylight, a time of sensual and otherwise sinful behavior. The object of the hunt is debased joy, which attracts the base affections (the hunting hounds), and the rational souls, submitting to passion (the hunters on their horses), follow after. This pageant of desire is essentially unreal, however, as daytime itself is unreal, and Cynthia promptly disposes of the hounds when night arrives. The mystical darkness offers an opportunity for true joy found only in the spiritual and intellectual fulfillment made possible by contemplative, nocturnal solitude.

The major themes of this two-part poem are thus the Platonic vision of inward contentment, the true joy afforded by contemplation, and the superiority of darkness over daylight. Writing partly in the ancient tradition of the Orphic hymns, Chapman veils his meaning in a mysterious religious atmosphere. The allegorical hunt and the emblematic scenes are, however, vividly described and poetically clear. The poem ends with a tribute to the immutability of Cynthia. Although the original harmony of primal darkness is gone, Cynthia will try to restore virtue to the degenerate world.

Ovid’s Banquet of Sense

Prefacing the volume of poems featuring Chapman’s next major poem, Ovid’s Banquet of Sense, is a brief statement of the poet’s convictions about his craft. Here he admits that he hates the profane multitude, asserts that he addresses his intentionally difficult poetry to a select audience, and appeals to those few readers who have a “light-bearing intellect” to appreciate his arcane verses. At first reading, the 117 stanzas of this poem do not seem very esoteric at all. Ostensibly, Ovid’s Banquet of Sense follows the currently popular mode of the erotic epyllion, as exemplified in William Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593). If one follows Chapman’s warning, however, one feels committed to search beneath the surface for deeper meaning.

The narrative structure of the poem follows the experience of Ovid in the garden of his mistress Corinna. In the garden, he is able to feast his senses on her while he remains hidden from her view. The first of his senses to be gratified is hearing, or auditus, as Corinna plays on her lute, fingering the strings and sweetly singing delightful lyrics. Then, as Ovid draws somewhat nearer to where she is seated at her bath, he is greeted by the overpowering fragrance of the spices she uses in bathing her body. His sense of smell, or olfactus, is now enchanted. Moving closer to the arbor to see her more clearly, Ovid is next able to feast his eyes on her inviting nakedness. The longest section of the poem is devoted to this languorous satisfaction of sight, or visus. The poet indulges in lavish sensual imagery to describe the experience. Ovid’s intense pleasure in the sight of his unclothed mistress ends abruptly, however, when she looks into her glass and suddenly sees him staring at her. Quickly wrapping herself in a cloud, she reproaches him for his immodest spying on her private bath. Ovid defends himself very convincingly, arguing that since his senses of hearing, smell, and sight have already been satisfied, he has a right to ask for a kiss to satisfy his sense of taste, or gustus. She grants him the kiss, which is also described in richly provocative language, but the ingenious would-be lover then argues for gratification of the ultimate sense, touch, or tactus.

Corinna is responsive to Ovid’s seductive plea, and when he lightly touches her side, she starts as if electrified. Like Ovid, the reader is aroused by the prolonged erotic buildup, but both are doomed to a letdown. At this climactic moment, the scene is interrupted by the sudden appearance of several other women, Corinna’s friends, who have come to paint in the garden. Having led both his hero and his reader to expect more, the poet now drops the narrative with a somewhat smug remark that much more is intended but must be omitted.

In the final stanza, Chapman refers to the “curious frame” of his poem, suggesting that it resembles a painting, wherein not everything can be seen and some things having to be inferred. The meaning beneath the surface, about which Chapman warned the reader, emerges from this awareness. The reader, like Ovid, has been put in the position of voyeur. Chapman has tricked the reader into false expectations and into assuming a morally ambiguous role. Indeed, the frustration seems worse for the suspenseful reader than for the abandoned lover, for Ovid is not disappointed by the anticlimax but instead is inspired to write his Ars amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e.; Art of Love, 1612). It is the reader who is trapped forever inside the curious frame. In spite of this trickery, Ovid’s Banquet of Sense is likely to be one of Chapman’s most appealing poems for the general reader. The primarily pictorial imagery, the undercurrent of irony, the escalating narrative movement through the five sensory experiences, and the vivid sensuality of Ovid’s responsiveness to his mistress combine to make it at once a dramatic and lyrical reading, unlike Chapman’s usual heavy didacticism.

“A Coronet for His Mistress Philosophy”

The didactic point of view is supplied by “A Coronet for His Mistress Philosophy,” the series of interlinked sonnets that follow Ovid’s Banquet of Sense. Offering a moral perspective on the ambiguity of Ovid’s Banquet of Sense, this series is circular, as its title implies, with the last line of each sonnet becoming the first line of the next, coming full circle at the end by repeating the opening line. Here Chapman renounces the Muses that sing of love’s “sensual emperie” and rejects the violent torments of sexual desire in favor of devotion to the benevolent mistress, Philosophy. The poet’s active and industrious pen will henceforth devote itself to the unchanging beauty of this intellectual mistress, whose virtues will in turn inspire him to ever greater art.

Hero and Leander

Chapman’s continuation of Christopher Marlowe’s Hero and Leander is also a narrative love poem. Marlowe’s premature death in 1594 left unfinished his poetic version of this tragic love story from the classical world. What survives of Marlowe’s work is two sestiads, which leave the narrative incomplete. Chapman undertook to finish the poem, publishing his own four sestiads in 1598. Chapman claims that he drank with Marlowe from the fountain of the Muses, but acknowledged that his own draft inspired verse more “grave” and “high.” Whereas Marlowe had been concerned with the physical beauty of the lovers and exalted their passion, Chapman takes a moral approach to their relationship, condemning their failure to sacramentalize physical love through marriage.

In the third sestiad, the goddess Ceremony descends from heaven to reproach Leander. Her body is as transparent as glass, and she wears a rich pentacle filled with mysterious signs and symbols. In one hand, she carries a mathematical crystal, a burning-glass capable of destroying Confusion, and in the other, a laurel rod with which to bend back barbarism. Her awesome reproof of Leander likens love without marriage to meat without seasoning, desire without delight, unsigned bills, and unripened corn. Leander immediately vows to celebrate the requisite nuptial rites. Meanwhile, Hero lies on her bed, torn between guilt and passion. Her conflict gradually gives way to resolution as thoughts of her lover’s beauty prevail over her sense of shame. In the end, love triumphs over fear.

In the fourth sestiad, Hero offers a sacrifice to the goddess Venus, who accuses her devotee of dissembling loyalty to her. Venus darts fire from her eyes to burn the sacrificial offering, and Hero tries to shield herself from the rage of the deity with a picture of Leander. The divinely repudiated offering is clearly a bad omen.

The fifth sestiad is introduced with Hero’s expression of impatience for night to bring her lover. The marriage theme is also reinforced in the form of an allegorical digression about a wedding staged and observed by Hero to make the time seem to pass more quickly and pleasantly. The wedding scene also introduces a wild nymph, Teras, a name given to comets portending evil. Teras sings a tale to the wedding party, following it with a delicately lyrical epithalamium. As she finishes the song, however, she suddenly assumes her comet nature, and with her hair standing on end, she glides out of the company. Her back appears black, striking terror into the hearts of all, especially Hero, who anxiously awaits her lover.

Night finally arrives in the sixth sestiad, bringing with it the tragic climax of the poem. Determined to swim the Hellespont to see Hero, Leander takes his fatal plunge into the stormy sea. Vainly he calls upon first Venus, then Neptune, for help against the violent waves tormenting his body, but the swimmer is doomed. Angry Neptune hurls his marble mace against the fates to forestall the fatal moment, but to no avail. The god then brings the drowned body of Leander on shore, where Hero sees him and, grief-stricken, dies calling his name. Moved by pity, the kindly god of the sea transforms the lovers into birds called Acanthides, or Thistle-Warps, which always fly together in couples.

Although Chapman’s continuation lacks the classical grace and sensuous imagery of Marlowe’s first two sestiads, it is poetically successful. His poem has a variety of styles, ranging from classical simplicity to Renaissance ornateness. The inevitable tragic plot is deepened by Chapman through the theme of moral responsibility and the role of form and ritual in civilization. He uses personified abstractions effectively, as in the case of the imposing goddess Ceremony, and he demonstrates his mythmaking skills in the person of the comet-nymph Teras. His emblematic verse intensifies the visual effects of the poem, often making it painterly in the manner of Ovid’s Banquet of Sense. In his poem, his didacticism is happily integrated with story and character rather than being imposed from without. Of all of Chapman’s poems, Hero and Leander is the most accessible to the contemporary reader.

Euthymiae Raptus

Euthymiae Raptus is a substantial (1,232-line) allegorical poem. The immediate occasion that called it forth was the truce in the war with the Netherlands, which had been brought about through the mediation of King James, and the poem is dedicated to the young Prince Henry. It is, however, much more than an occasional poem. Partly autobiographical and partly philosophical, as well as partly topical, it is a major achievement.

The opening inductio has primary autobiographical value. Here Chapman relates his personal, mystical encounter with the spirit of Homer. The poet had been meditating when he suddenly perceived a figure clothed in light with a bosom full of fire and breathing flames. It is at once obvious that the apparition is blind, though gifted with inward sight. The spirit then identifies itself as Homer, come to praise Chapman for his translations and to reveal the reason why the world has not achieved a state of peace. Invisible until this moment, Homer has been inspiring Chapman’s poetry for a long time. At the end of this section, Homer shows Chapman a vision of the lady Peace mourning over a coffin, despairing the death of Love. A brief invocatio follows, spoken by the poet, while Peace, pouring out tears of grief, prepares to speak.

The third and major section of the poem is structured as a dialogue between Peace and the poet as Interlocutor. This section is essentially a thoughtful and impassioned antiwar poem. Typical of Chapman’s philosophical cast of mind, the poem probes the cause of war throughout human history. Peace’s lament for Love clearly relates the fact of war to the death of Love, but why has Love died? Peace attributes the demise of Love to lack of learning among people in general. Genuine learning, according to Peace, implies a capability for original thought, without which humans can never arrive at a true knowledge of God. It is this deprived state of mind and soul that has made war possible. The failure of learning keeps humans from knowing God, thereby bringing about the end of Love, and Love is necessary to sustain Peace.

The concept of learning elucidated in this poem is not so much intellectual as ethical. Learning is viewed as the art of good life. Chapman cites three classes of men in particular who are dangerous enemies of this ideal: first, the active men, who aim only at worldly success and reject learning in favor of ruthlessly pursuing ambition; second, the passive men, who simply neglect learning while they waste time in mere pleasures; and, finally, the intellective men, who debase learning because they pursue their studies only for the sake of social and financial reward. Genuine learning, to be attained for its own sake, empowers the soul with control over the body’s distracting passions and perturbations. Those who are called scholars in this world are all too often mere “walking dictionaries” or mere “articulate clocks” who cannot “turn blood to soul” and who will therefore never come to know God. These three categories of nonlearners and perverters of learning willingly enter the destructive toils of war.


These four long poems, along with the elegies Eugenia and An Epicede or Funerall Song on the Death of Henry Prince of Wales and the occasional pieces, Andromeda Liberata and Pro Vere Autumni Lachrymae, represent most of Chapman’s original verse. There are also a few short pieces called Petrarch’s Seven Penitential Psalms, consisting largely of translations. The body of Chapman’s original poetry is thus limited in scope but impressive in quality. Although The Shadow of Night is occasionally obscure in poetic diction, and although Euthymiae Raptus at times proves slow going in its didacticism, both of these poems are nevertheless rich in thought and are distinguished by several passages of high poetic caliber. Ovid’s Banquet of Sense and Hero and Leander are actually two of the finest narrative poems of the English Renaissance.

The modern reader has much to gain from Chapman. His subtlety and irony appeal to the intellect, and his emblematic and metaphorical language pleases the aesthetic imagination. His is a distinctive Renaissance voice not circumscribed by the formulaic patterns of that highly conventional age. He is above all a serious writer, committed to the lofty calling of poetry as a vehicle of ideas through the medium of figurative language.


George Chapman Drama Analysis


Chapman, George