On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer

On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold, 
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; 
   Round many western islands have I been 
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. 
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 
   That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne: 
   Yet did I never breathe its pure serene 
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: 
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies 
   When a new planet swims into his ken; 
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes 
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men 
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— 
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
John Keats
John Keats

John Keats was born in London, apprenticed to an apothecary-surgeon when he was 15, and licensed as an apothecary in 1816 but abandoned this profession for poetry. His first volume was published in 1817, attracting some good reviews but later Lockhart's attack on the 'Cockney school'. Endymion was published in 1818, the same year that Keats and his friend Charles Brown toured the Lakes, spent July and August in Scotland, and briefly visited Northern Ireland. After the death of his brother in December, Keats moved to Brown's house in Hampstead and there wrote a succession of brilliant poems including 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' and the Odes. He also met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. His second volume, Lamia... and other poems, was published in 1820, and was generally well received. For the sake of his declining health he went to Rome with his friend Severn, but died there of tuberculosis aged 26. He is  regarded as one of the great Romantic poets of the second generation, along with Shelley and Byron. T.S. Eliot described his letters as 'certainly the most notable and most important ever written by any English poet'.

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About On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer

Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.

Jacob Polley on 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer':

Keats's wonderful sonnet was written in the early hours of one morning in October 1816. Having spent the night reading a copy of George Chapman's 1616 translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey , Keats returned home from Clerkenwell to Dean Street, where he quickly wrote out a draft of the poem, which he then sent back to Clerkenwell, to his friend Charles Cowden Clarke, with whom he'd sat up all night, excitedly reading.

Reading and excitement: these are the currents that give the poem its undiminished charge – a thrilling crackle so recognisable to me as a reader and sharer of writing and books. Indeed, the poem could be set in stone at the entrance to every library in the country, so evocative is it of imagination fired by the discovery of words on a page.

The poem is really an extended metaphor, in which the ‘realms of gold' are both Homer's ancient Grecian realms, ‘travelled' as Keats read about them, and also the gold-embossed spines and gilt-edged pages of the books themselves. The poem never mentions ‘reading', ‘pages' or ‘books', and yet Chapman's book, which is what's being ‘first looked into', is allowing Keats to imaginatively rise above the fact of turning a page and reading printed words and to use the individual, physical edition of Chapman's book to evoke the general freedom and sense of discovery fostered by reading and imagining. The feeling induced as we read the poem is of pure experience, unmediated by words. Thus the narrator ‘travels', ‘sees', ‘is told', ‘breathes', ‘hears' and ‘feels', and it is as if Keats is plunging – and plunging us – through the portal of the page into the very worlds described on the pages he has read.

If this plunging through portals suggests to you one of those fantastical children's stories with which we have become so familiar, I would concur with the suggestion. For headlong imagining, or make-believe, is what the poem induces above all. Metaphor can both infuse a thing with grandiosity – saying we build houses with red gold bricks, for instance – and also diminish something – if we call a crown, for example, a twist of foil. In the poem, Keats infuses books, writing and reading with grandiosity. The first line of his poem does not run: ‘Much have I browsed among the library shelves', because the poet's intention is to have it both ways – or even several ways – simultaneously; he wants to write a poem about reading and about exploring, about Chapman's actual leather-bound book and about the very classical realms and kingdoms of which he feels he has been given a pure, unmediated experience by the words in the book.

But the current of metaphor – from the Greek, meaning ‘to transfer' – always runs both ways, and in Keats's poem, the aggrandisement of reading can't help but contain a force to the contrary, a kind of gravitational pull back down to earth that provokes us to ask: ‘If the poet meant plain old books when he wrote ‘realms of gold', then why didn't he just say so? If he didn't mean that he'd actually seen , with his own eyes, many western islands, and instead that he'd just read about them, then why not just say that too?' These questions, barked with gruff, fatherly reasonableness, are at the heart of what it is to engage or not with poetry and stories.

I think the poem is thrilling partly because Keats is thrilled to be trying on the costume, not only of a broad-shouldered, Cortez-like explorer, but also of a discoverer and user of words, and a specifically literary register, which bring him suddenly into closer companionship, not only with his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke, but also with the great writers of the past. The thrill is a boyish thrill, a non-authoritarian thrill in a ragbag of references – to Greek gods, to the discovery of Uranus by F.W. Herschel, as it was described in a book about astronomy we know Keats had been given, and to Cortez and the discovery of the Pacific, as it was recounted in William Robertson's History of America . Keats, in this poem, is discovering his gift, and we are thrilled by the discovery, just as his friend, for whom the poem was a kind of gift, must also have been thrilled, and as Keats himself was thrilled by Chapman's highly-charged response to the crackle left in Homer's pages.

This piece comes from Jacob Polley's work as Poet Partner with the Scottish Poetry Library's partner collection in Dumfries and Galloway Libraries and with Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, when he talked to reading groups about the pleasures of discovering poetry. The Poet Partners scheme, and other work with partner collections, is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

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