On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is a sonnet written by the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795–1821) in October 1816. It tells of the author's astonishment while reading the works of the ancient Greek poet Homer as freely translated by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman.
Keats' generation was familiar enough with the polished literary translations of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, which gave Homer an urbane gloss similar to Virgil, but expressed in blank verse or heroic couplets. Chapman's vigorous and earthy paraphrase (1616) was put before Keats by Charles Cowden Clarke, a friend from his days as a pupil at a boarding school in Enfield Town. They sat up together till daylight to read it: "Keats shouting with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination. At ten o'clock the next morning, Mr. Clarke found the sonnet on his breakfast-table."
The "realms of gold" in the opening line seem to imply worldly riches, until the name of Homer appears; then they are recognized as literary and cultural realms. Of the many islands of the Aegean, the one which bards most in fealty owe to Apollo, leader of the inspiring Muses, is Delos, the sacred island that was Apollo's birthplace. The island-dotted Aegean lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean; thus when Keats refers to the "western islands" of his own experience, he tacitly contrasts them with the East Indies, the goal that drew adventurers like doughty Cortéz and Balboa to the New World, an example of submerged imagery behind the text, which is typical of Keats' technique.
The second quatrain introduces "one wide expanse" that was ruled by Homer, but which was "heard of" rather than known to Keats at first-hand, for Homer wrote in Greek, and Keats, like most cultured Englishmen of his time, was at ease only in Latin. The "wide expanse" might have been a horizon of land or sea, but in Keats' breathing its "pure serene", we now sense that it encompasses the whole atmosphere, and in it Chapman's voice rings out. This sense of fresh discovery brings the reader to the volta: "Then felt I...".
The "new planet" was Uranus, discovered in 1781 by Sir William Herschel, Astronomer Royal to George III, the first planet that was unknown to astronomers of Antiquity. It was a new world in the heavens.
In point of historical fact, it was the members of Vasco Núñez de Balboa's expedition who were the first Europeans to see the east coast of the Pacific, but Keats chose to focus on Hernán Cortés; "Darien" refers to the Darién province of Panama. Keats had been reading William Robertson's History of America and apparently conflated two scenes there described: Balboa's finding of the Pacific and Cortés's first view of the Valley of Mexico. The Balboa passage: "At length the Indians assured them, that from the top of the next mountain they should discover the ocean which was the object of their wishes. When, with infinite toil, they had climbed up the greater part of the steep ascent, Balboa commanded his men to halt, and advanced alone to the summit, that he might be the first who should enjoy a spectacle which he had so long desired. As soon as he beheld the South Sea stretching in endless prospect below him, he fell on his knees, and lifting up his hands to Heaven, returned thanks to God, who had conducted him to a discovery so beneficial to his country, and so honourable to himself. His followers, observing his transports of joy, rushed forward to join in his wonder, exultation, and gratitude" (Vol. III).
John Keats simply remembered the image, rather than the actual historical facts. Charles Clarke noticed the error immediately, but Keats chose to leave it in, presumably because historical accuracy would have necessitated an unwanted extra syllable in the line.
In retrospect, Homer's "pure serene" has prepared the reader for the Pacific, and so the analogy now expressed in the simile that identifies the wide expanse of Homer's demesne with the vast Pacific, which stuns its discoverers into silence, is felt to be the more just.
Keats altered "wondr'ing eyes" (in the original manuscript) to "eagle eyes", and "Yet could I never judge what Men could mean" (which was the seventh line even in the first publication in The Examiner) to "Yet did I never breathe its pure serene".
This poem is a Petrarchan sonnet, also known as an Italian sonnet, divided into an octave and a sestet, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-d-c-d. After the main idea has been introduced and the image played upon in the octave, the poem undergoes a volta, a change in the persona's train of thought. The volta, typical of Italian sonnets, is put very effectively to use by Keats as he refines his previous idea. While the octave offers the poet as a literary explorer, the volta brings in the discovery of Chapman's Homer, the subject of which is further expanded through the use of imagery and comparisons which convey the poet's sense of awe at the discovery.
As is typical of sonnets in English, the metre is iambic pentameter, though not all of the lines scan perfectly (line 12 has an extra syllable, for example).
Cultural references to the poem
- Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by Keats's writing about the discovery of Uranus when he wrote his early poem "Al Aaraaf" (1829).
- Frances Power Cobbe analysed the poem in her essay "The Peak in Darien : the riddle of death" in The Peak in Darien with some other inquiries touching concerns of the soul and the body : an octave of essays, Boston. 1882.
- Henry James refers to Keats's sonnet in Book 2 of The Golden Bowl (1904), in his description of Adam Verver's discovery of his passion for collecting objects of art.
- G. K. Chesterton uses the line in one of his drinking songs, The Logical Vegetarian.
- In a postscript to the novel The Clicking of Cuthburt, P. G. Wodehouse says "In the second chapter I allude to Stout Cortez staring at the Pacific. Shortly after the appearance of this narrative in serial form in America, I received an anonymous letter containing the words, "You big stiff, it wasn't Cortez, it was Balboa." On the other hand, if Cortez was good enough for Keats, he is good enough for me. Besides, even if it was Balboa, the Pacific was open to being stared at about that time, and I see no reason why Cortez should not have had a look at it as well."
- In the P.G. Wodehouse novel The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie Wooster states that his cousins "looked at each other, like those chappies in the poem, with a wild surmise."
- The first chapter of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons is titled "A Peak in Darien" and is headed with the last four lines of the sonnet. Titty gives the name "Darien" to the headland from which the Swallows first see the lake. The quotation crops up again in Peter Duck, prompting Bill to ask "Who's fat Cortez?"
- Myles na gCopaleen used Keats and Chapman as running characters in his "Cruiskeen Lawn" columns in the Irish Times, usually living out shaggy dog stories leading up to increasingly elaborate puns.
- Freya Stark alludes to the poem in the title of "A Peak in Darien" (London, 1976).
- Vladimir Nabokov refers to the poem in his novel Pale Fire: ...and from the local Star
- Watcher of the Skies, a phrase from the poem, inspired the title of a Genesis song from their 1972 album Foxtrot.
- There is a witticism, of unknown origin, which describes a gourmet savoring a superb parfait as "silent upon a peak in dairying".
- Gilbert Adair wrote a long article entitled "On First Looking into Chaplin's Humour".
- Tobias Wolff references the last line of the sonnet (Silent, upon a peak in Darien) in "Bullet in the Brain."
- In the Season 5 episode "Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning" of the sitcom 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin's character, Jack Donaghy, quotes the poem while musing on his new start as an executive for the company Kabletown. Tracy Morgan's character, Tracy Jordan, later mentions "stout Cortez" (his gardener), as well.
- New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai created a monumental artwork entitled “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” for the Venice Biennale 2011.
- Historian of science Edward B. (Ted) Davis published a pastiche, "On First, Looking into Chapman's Homer," about a long home run by Mickey Mantle, in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature 29(1), Fall 2011/Winter 2012, p. 35 (but it actually appeared in August 2013). The addition of a comma in Keats' title provides an indispensable pun—a clue to the reader about the subject of the pastiche. Davis writes how "stout Mantle" stood and "Watch’d his ball just rise and rise and rise — Silent, above a park in Washington."
- "John Keats: Contemporary Descriptions: The poet described by those who knew him best". englishhistory.net. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- See external links.
- Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 45–46. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
- Cobbe, Frances Power (1882). The peak in Darien with some other inquiries touching concerns of the soul and the body: an octave of essays. Boston: Geo. H. Ellis. ISBN 0-7905-7329-6.
"HOLLIS Classic FULL CATALOG - Full View of Record". Harvard University Library. Retrieved 2009-07-03.
- P.G. Wodehouse (1922). The Clicking of Cuthburt.
- Wodehouse, P.G. (1923). The Inimitable Jeeves. Penguin Books. p. 132. ISBN 0-14-028412-5.
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- Discusses the creation of the poem, and also shows the original manuscript.
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