On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer lines 9-14 Explanation

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On First Looking into Chapman's Homer lines 9-14
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by John Keats

Keats’ view of poetry from line 9-14 in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” : It’s in an early sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816) that Keats displays the attitudes of a true scientist. With a superbly sustained metaphor of exploration, the sonnet describes an episode in the imaginative voyage that was of paramount importance to his development – that of reading. He had learned Latin, but Greek was not available to “Cockney” poets. It was thanks to his schoolmaster Charles Cowden Clarke that Keats had first discovered Edmund Spenser. Now Clarke introduced him to the work of another Elizabethan, George Chapman, whose translations of Homer the young men read together during an evening’s get-together which the enthralled Keats would describe as “our first symposium”. The celebratory sonnet was completed the same night, in time to be delivered to Clarke in the following morning’s post.

In the second half of the poem, as we enter the sestet, the verse completely alters in tone. The speaker is now inspired, empowered, and purposeful because of what he has read. Keats has created an intriguing connection between himself and the reader in this piece. The poem is a result of his inspiration from Chapman, and by writing his own beautiful sonnet, Keats seduces his reader into his poem in the same way that he was originally enthralled by Homer. The writer and reader share in the same experience. Keats compares himself to an astronomer and a famous explorer; since reading Homer the poet’s confidence has clearly grown rapidly! He also becomes more poetic here, as he likens the discovery of his own creative genius to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet, and to Cortez discovering South America. The caesura in the final line “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, is wonderfully dramatic, and seems to echo the awe that the poet feels at realising his poetic potential, and the vast landscapes of beauty that his imagination is capable of conjuring.

The speaker describes the effect of Chapman’s translations upon him through two metaphors: first, the speaker feels like an astronomer who has just discovered a new planet, and second, the speaker feels like Hernan Cortez, a Spanish conquistador famous for exploring Central America in the 16th century. In the last two lines, as the speaker pictures Cortez staring down the Pacific, he also imagines his crew looking at each other upon a mountain’s peak, high above a landscape no one else from their native country has gazed upon before.

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The second half of the octave extends the metaphor of the kingdom of poetry to tell us that Keats had heard about Homer’s epics although he had never read them. Homer is traditionally recognized as the first epic poet of Europe just like Valmiki and Vyasa were of India. They can be considered pure and original because they did not borrow their images from other poets. Homer knew and understood human nature dispassionately. His understanding was clear and unclouded by doubts, distractions and fears. Besides, 1-Iorner was the monarch of poets deserving the exalted title of ‘serene’. It is at the end of the octave that Keats tells us about the cause of his translocation i.e. his reading (with Charles Cowden Clarke) of Homer in Chapman’s translocation. The octave structurally is not divided from the sestet as it ends in a colon :

“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”

Having told us about the background of his poem in the octave Keats turns to communicate his enjoyment of Homer to us in the sestet. This is done through two unforgettable images. The first of these is that of a professional astronomer into sc sight a new planet has moved in. The second is that of a discoverer such as Herman Cortez who conquered Mexico for Spain and became the first western adventurer to enter Mexico City. Historically, however, it was Vasco Nunez de Balbao who was the first European in 1513 to stand upon the peak of Darien in ma. It is significant that Keats does not name any astronomer such as Galileo had discovered new satellites of the planet Jupiter. It would be in keeping with Keats’s piety to infer that in referring to ‘some watcher of the skies’ he is making use of the primitive figure of speech of periphrasis. If the images help Keats in communicating his peculiar feeling or flavour of the sense or meaning the rhythm of verse gives further density by suggesting the right tone and unfolding the intention while reemphasizing his meaning or sense, and feeling :

“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 surmiseSilent, upon a peak in Darien.”

In Keats’ customary Petrarchan-sonnet fashion, the poem’s volta occurs at the beginning of line 9. The word “Then” signals the speaker’s transition from describing his previous journeys in Homer’s universe to articulating the change that occurred within him after reading Chapman’s translations. Likewise, the word “felt” signifies a change in being: the speaker not only sees Homer’s universe with new eyes, but he approaches Homer’s world as though he were a new person. He isn’t simply another young poet who has made his rounds through the western islands: he’s an explorer en route to new turf, an astronomer who has just made a remarkable discovery in the night sky’s wide, shining expanse.

The poem’s themes of voyage and discovery are emphasized by the metaphors the speaker uses to describe the change that occurs within him. By likening himself to an astronomer who notices a new planet, and by likening himself to the Spanish explorer, the speaker suggests that reading Chapman’s Homer is like gazing upon a new world, the first of his kind to set eyes upon such a marvelous sight. The astronomer’s treasure arrives in the form of knowledge, while the most enticing element of new land for Cortez and his men is the possibility of conquest and glory. Likewise, these lines are filled with joy and anticipation, characterized by the speaker’s eagerness to rediscover Homer’s familiar universe, made new.

The speaker’s wonder at the prospects of Chapman’s Homer borders on sublime. Like Cortez’s men, silent and awestruck upon a mountain’s peak, the speaker approaches Cortez’s work with reverence. Even if the sestet is more focused on articulating the sensation of wonder, the last six lines continue in the poem’s visionary mode, because the speaker sets us up to imagine what the astronomer, Cortez, and Cortez’s men must be seeing. The phrase “eagle eyes” emphasizes the speaker’s attention to detail as he looks into Chapman’s Homer, while the images of the ocean extending to the horizon and the view from the mountain’s peak correspond the metaphorical expansion of the boundaries of Homer’s world.

As the poem ends in silence, we could imagine the speaker reading on the edge of his seat, with bated breath at the prospect of undertaking a new voyage through Homer’s world. Or, we could picture him absentmindedly gazing in the distance, his voice trailing off, canvassing in his mind the broad expanse of Homer’s world, the mountains and seas that stood between Odysseus on his journey home.

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