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On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

June 27, 2016
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.

John Keats, 1816

COMMENTARY: I had a discussion with a friend a while back who was just beginning to study Russian. He told me how astonishing it was to listen to the music for the first time: folk songs that were as familiar to Russians as “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” seemed mesmerizingly beautiful to him. There was a whole new cannon to learn, song by song, and it had been there all his life. There are a handful of life experiences like that: where it isn’t just a single epiphany (learning a new word, making a new friend, etc.) but a sea of epiphanies, a complete redrawing of the map. What is provocative about Keats’s controlling metaphor is that, unlike the Pacific Ocean, the discovery of Chapman’s Homer doesn’t involve going anywhere. It’s all internal. He’d read Homer many times but never like that. He’s going over the same territory but seeing it for the first time.

Technically, the sonnet has Keats’s typical aural mellifluousness: the delicious long vowels, the skillful coordination of syntax and line structure. One special trick, though, is worth noting. In the first eight lines, the “een” rhyme is prominent, though sandwiched between the harder “old” rhymes. In the last six lines, he changes “een” to “en,” keeping the consonant structure but changing the sound. This parallels the theme of the poem where “Homer” is the same but his essence, through the differing translations, is altered. The final word of the poem “Darien” combines the “ee” and the “en” sounds, mingling the old and the new and performing, in a single sound, the transformation which has taken place in his mind.

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  1. richibi permalink

    one of my very favourite poems, moonbeam, thanks for the memory – cheers, Richard

  2. I like your very interesting observations on the play of Keats’s sounds. And this poem, of course, has one of the more famous literary slips: Keats’s substituting Cortez for Balboa. Maybe that’s a case of poetic license, or maybe it’s an example of dormitat Homerus.

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