ON FIRST LOOKING INTO CHAPMAN'S HOMER


Notes

                                 
        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.

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Notes


In October, 1816, Keats spent an evening with his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke, reading extracts from George Chapman's translations of Homer's The Iliad and Odyssey. Keats found the experience exhilarating and, on his return home, composed this sonnet in the early hours of the morning. In its blend of allusions, feelings and associations, the poem conveys the sheer sense of wonder which Keats had found, intellectually and emotionally, in this discovery, and the poem uses analogies to two very different forms of discovery - in geography and astronomy - in order to conjure up the mixture of awe, fascination and having his breath taken away from him. Yet Keats conveys this sense of excitement through the restrained and superbly crafted medium of the sonnet form, all the remarkable given the speed of composition.

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travell'd

The notion of travelling or voyaging is extremely important throughout the poem as a whole, including the voyaging of Cortez,, the intellectual voyages of discovery of Herschel, and the poet's own voyage of self discovery

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realms of Gold

Here Keats is clearly referring to the heritage of classical literature, although it is also worth noting that the phrase may also carry associations with the quality of the bound books themselves, with their gold lettering on the spines or even the edges of each page. Certain critics associate the phrase with the city of El Dorado, but it is also worth noting the echoes to Keats' 'Ode to Apollo', (written eighteen months earlier) in which Keats writes of Apollo's residence in his "western halls of gold", serenaded by Homer with his "nervous arms".

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western islands

that is, Greek literature and culture, along with the Greek coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

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fealty

faithful service or homage. The term also carries associations of feudal obligation.

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Apollo

Son of Zeus, was the Greek god of medicine, poetry and music, archery, prophecy and youth. Apollo also has become associated with purity of thought, reasoning and logic, expressed in the phrase 'Apollonian'

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wide expanse

The associations here are clearly geographical, but also anticipate the spaciousness of the heavens themselves, the Pacific, or the panoramic view from the peak of Darien.

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Homer

The poem was inspired by Keats' reading of Chapman's Elizabethan translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

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demesne

that is, state or territory, picking up on the reference to the "goodly states" in line 2. As ruler Homer is embodied as an intellectual rather than political leader.

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breathe

A number of associations here, including the traditional association with inspiration, the taking in of air and the spirit as well as the poetic sense of inspiration, and also an anticipation of the breathless wonder experienced by Cortez and his companions in the rarified air of Mount Darien.

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serene

derived from the Latin, serenum, (air or clear sky)

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Then

This is the turning point in the sonnet, which breaks at this point before and after his reading of Chapman's translation.

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ken

meaning sight or vision. These two lines are commonly held to refer to the discovery of the planet Uranus by Sir William Herschel in 1781, and with echoes of the account of this discovery in John Bonnycastle's Introduction to Astronomy, which Keats would have been familiar with because he had won a copy of the book as a school prize in 1811.

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Cortez,

Hernando Cortez (1485-1547) was the famous explorer and conqueror of Mexico, and discoverer of California. In the context of the poem the reference really should be to the explorer Balbao, who first discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513: Tennyson, in The Golden Treasury, pointed out that Keats had made a mistake of history here, but the sense of excitement felt by the explorer in general is clearly conveyed in this reference.

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Darien

A region in Central America overlooking the Pacific and situated near to what is now the Panama Canal. It is important that Cortez and his companions are looking down, with "eagle-eyes", over this expanse of territory, the Pacific, transfixed both by the enormity of the vision before them, and also breathless from the serenity of the scene and the rarified atmosphere. Return to Chapman's Homer