A summary and analysis of a classic John Keats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ is a sonnet composed by Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) in October 1816, when he was just 20 years old. The poem focuses on Keats’s initial encounter with an English translation of Homer’s poetry by George Chapman (c. 1559-1634), likening the experience to that of an astronomer discovering a new planet or an explorer sighting an unknown land.
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-browed 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.
The form of the poem is, specifically, an Italian or a Petrarchan sonnet rather than an English sonnet – which seems odd, given the poem’s focus on English literature (the English Chapman’s translation of epic poetry), but which makes more sense given the poem’s other subject, namely the Mediterranean as a seat of literary culture (Homer, the Greek poet whom Chapman translated). The first four lines discuss the poet’s travels in the ‘realms of gold’ (whether these are real travels or travels in the imagination remains unclear), and the second quatrain introduces Homer, epic Greek poet who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, which tell the story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ journey home following the war.
But Keats could not appreciate Homer because he cannot read Greek. So he cannot read Homer’s words. That is, until he encounters George Chapman’s English translation of Homer, at which point the world of the ancient Greek poet is suddenly and magically opened up to him. The final six-line unit (or sestet) of the poem then likens the poet’s experience of ‘discovering’ Homer to the discovery of a new planet (sure enough, the planet Uranus had been discovered by William Herschel in 1781) and to a Spanish conquistador’s sighting of the Pacific ocean. (This is the sort of thing a Metaphysical Poet like John Donne had done in his poetry in the early seventeenth century.) These two analogies are linked subtly through Keats’s use of the word ‘swims’ (‘a new planet swims into his ken’), with this watery word leading into the description of Cortez staring at the Pacific.
So much for what the poem is about; but we should also look at how Keats says it. At the moment when the poet discovers Chapman’s translation, for instance – a translation which makes available to the poet this whole world of Homer’s imagination – the language of Keats’s line becomes clear and plain: ‘Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold’. This subtly contrasts with the earlier use of grander or polysyllabic words (‘realms’, ‘kingdoms’, ‘fealty’, ‘Apollo’, ‘demesne’, ‘serene’), reflecting the sudden simplicity and ease with which Keats can approach Homer, through Chapman’s English version.
Note: the poem contains a factual error: it was Balboa, rather than Cortez, who would have stood ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien’ (Cortez conquered the North American lands of modern-day Mexico; Darien is in Panama at the top of South America). Whether this error mars the poem or not depends on your view of poetry (and assuming that the error is an error on Keats’s part, rather than artistic licence).
For more of Keats’s poetry, see our discussion of his classic sonnet about death, his beautiful ode to melancholy, and our analysis of his short poetic fragment, ‘This living hand, now warm and capable’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.