Poem Of The Week - 'On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer' - John Keats
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
'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.
When Wordsworth took a reflective backward glance at his early life in the poem 'Ode: Intimations of Mortality', he was recalling something lost - that sense of excitement borne partly out of revolutionary ardour for events which unfolded in France fifteen years earlier, but mainly the fired-imagination of youth itself. The seductive resonance of his lines -
'Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?'
- render the loss of youth more profound: the idealism and imaginative genius of juvenilia is dimmed with age, though made ironically pristine in a poem of great beauty.
John Keats was twenty when he wrote 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer' in 1816, some thirteen years after Wordsworth's elegy. A significantly younger man, the poem's sense of 'discovery' is re-condensed from more recent experience, and precisely embodies the thing lost in Wordsworth's poem.
Although Keats was a brilliant interpreter of the immediacy of emotion - he infuses all he touches with a teeming magic realism - vicarious excitement can barely be contained in this poem. He wears enthusiasm for discovery on his sleeve, and finds perfect metaphorical vehicles in which to express it.
The simple act of looking into a book - Elizabethan dramatist George Chapman's Homer, a translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey - and marvelling at its rendition of the picaresque universe of ancient myth, opens up vistas of imaginative possibility for the youthful Keats.
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Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador who subjugated the Aztecs in Mexico in the early sixteenth century, is then transformed into the poet's medium for expressing a sense of discubrimiento, or discovery. The reader is left to imagine the infusion of wonder which rendered Cortés' soldiery dumbstruck 'upon a peak in Darien'.
Keats' profound and unique instinct for poetry was a near guarantor of the proper fitment of form to theme. Sonnets demand concision of thought process and thematic development, and here, a simple hymn to the value of intense emotional engagement is rendered in lines which are distilled of superfluity - not a word is wasted or misused.
At a time of deep cuts to library services across the whole nation, it is to be hoped that children continue to take as much from Harry Potter, as the youthful Keats did from Homer.
'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer' - John Keats (1795-1821)
Poem Of The Week - 'On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer' - John Keats, 10th February 2018, 9:57 AM