Today’s poem, by Keats, is very often included in poetry collections, and I suppose that the final image of stout Cortez is known by just about everyone with a passing acquaintance with Romantic-era poetry. But re-reading a supposedly familiar poem is rewarding as we rediscover the whole work, and place the familiar image back into its original context. So please bring a fresh pair of eyes and ears and appreciate one of Keats’ masterful sonnets.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
BY JOHN KEATS
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.
First, consider the title. This poem sets out to convey the poet’s reaction to his first reading of a translation, by Chapman, into English of Homer’s epic Iliad and Odyssey. We may never have read Chapman’s Homer, but the impressions conveyed can stand for any sense of wonder we may feel when encountering great art or literature for the first time.
The first four lines position the poet as a man of experience, who has travelled and seen many things – so not someone who is easily impressed. The second four lines, talk of him knowing Homer’s reputation, but never having been able to appreciate it until reading Chapman’s version.
The final six lines of the poem are the accumulation of images describing the poet’s wonder, awe, surprise on reading this version of Homer. It is as if he is an astronomer who has discovered a new planet; or a Conquistador who has made his way, against all odds to the new World and beyond and beholds the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Cortez and his men are awe-struck and silenced by what they have done and what they are seeing, it becomes beyond words.
Keats points the way in this poem to the transcendental experience of great art, when we can go beyond our past experiences, our acquired sophistication, our analytic tendencies and allow our sense of wonder and joy to rise to the surface and get free expression. There is a life-lesson here….
The Poetry Dude