Keats was so moved by the power and aliveness of Chapman's translation of Homer that he wrote this sonnet—after spending all night reading Homer with a friend. The poem expresses the intensity of Keats's experience; it also reveals how passionately he cared about poetry. To communicate how profoundly the revelation of Homer's genius affected him, Keats uses imagery of exploration and discovery. In a sense, the reading experience itself becomes a Homeric voyage, both for the poet and the reader.
Written in October 1816, this is the first entirely successful (surviving) poem he wrote. John Middleton Murry called it "one of the finest sonnets in the English language.”
Definitions and Allusions
This phrase can be read in two closely related ways, (1) as the world of imagination and/or (2) as the world of poetry. The difference in meaning between these two readings is a matter of emphasis, because poetry is produced by the imagination.
Having a pleasing appearance or character; large or extensive
This line suggests the voyages of Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey.
1- A professional poet who composed and sang songs about heroes
2- Devoted fidelity or loyalty, originally the allegiance of a tenant (or vassal) to his lord
3- Greek god of poetry and music
1- Homer, the great Greek poet, wrote two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, His date is placed anywhere betweeen 1050 and 850 B.C.
2- Realm or kingdom
A bright clear sky; clear air
George Chapman (1559-1634) was a poet and playwright.
The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781 by F.W. Herschel.
Range of sight or knowledge
1- Strong, brave, bold (not, in this context, fat!)
2- Balboa, not Cortez, discovered the Pacific Ocean.
Guess or conjecture
The Darien mountain range runs the length of the Isthmus of Darien, now called Panama.
As a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" falls into two parts—an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet describes Keats's reading experience before reading Chapman's translation and the sestet contrasts his experience of reading it.
The octet stresses Keats's wide reading experience; for example he says "MUCH have I TRAVELED," meaning that he has read a great deal. What other words/phrases in the octet also indicate his extensive traveling (reading) experience? Note he has traveled both on land and sea.
The Octet (lines 1-8)
The phrase "realms of gold" functions in a number of ways. "Realms" starts the image cluster of locations—"states," "kingdoms" "demesnes." These words, as well as "in fealty," suggest political organization. The phrase also symbolizes the world of literature or, if you prefer, imagination. What is Keats saying about the value of this world., i.e., why describe it as realms of gold, rather than of lead or brass, for instance? Why does he use the plural "realmS," rather than the singular "realm"?
Finally, "realms of gold" anticipates the references in the sestet to the Spanish Conquistadores in the New World, for whom the lust for gold was a primary motive. The repetition of "l" sounds in "travelled," "realms," and "gold" emphasizes the idea and ties the words together.
The high, even holy function that poets fulfill is indicated by their being the servants of a god, Apollo, and having sworn to follow him (with the suggestion of their having consecrated their lives to him). "Fealty," in addition, indicates their dedication to Apollo and, by extension, to their calling, the writing of poetry.
With the reference to poets, Keats moves from those who read (or who experience through poets' imaginations) to those who create poetry (or who express their own imaginations). Then the poem narrows to one particular poet who rules the realm of poetry, i.e., whose genius and inspired poetry raise him above even dedicated poets.
To emphasize the extent of Homer's genius and his literary accomplishments, Keats modifies "expanse" (which means "extensive") with an adjective which also means "extensive," i.e., the adjective "wide."
"Deep-browed" refers to Homer's intellect. (We use the adjective "deep" colloquially with a similar meaning today, in such phrases as "a deep thought" or "she's a deep thinker.")
By breathing in the "pure serene," he makes it a part of himself; would the same effect be achieved if he walked or ran through Homer's demesne (his poetry)? What is Keats saying about the necessity of poetry (how important is breathing)?
This line and the next line contrast Keats's knowledge of Homer's reputation and his experiencing the genius of Homer's poetry in Chapman's translation. What are your assocations with the words "pure" and "serene"– positive, negative, neutral? Note that these words apply to both the poetry of Homer and the translation by Chapman.
The Sestet (lines 9-14)
"Then" moves the poem to a new idea, to the consequences or the results of reading Chapman's translation. At the same time, "then" connects the sestet to the octet and so provides a smooth transition from one section of the poem to the other. In this line and the next line, reading Chapman's translation has revealed a new dimension or world to Keats, which he expresses by extending the world to include the heavens.
To get a sense of Keats' excitement and joy at the discovery of Homer via Chapman, imagine the moment of looking up into the sky and seeing a planet—which has been unknown till that moment. Also imagine the moment of struggling up a mountain, reaching the top and beholding—not land, as you expected—but an expanse of ocean, reaching to the horizon and beyond. What would that moment of discovery, that moment of revelation of a new world, that moment of enlarging the world you knew, feel like?
The planet "swims" into view. Though the astronomer is actively looking (as Keats actively read), yet the planet, which has always been there, comes into his view. The image of swimming is part of the water imagery, starting with the voyages of line 3 to the Pacific Ocean in the ending.
Since the discovery of the Pacific is a visual experience, Keats emphasizes Cortez's eyes. What kind of eyesight does an eagle have (is it different from that of an owl or a bat, for instance)?
Why does Cortez "stare," rather than just look at or glance at the Pacific? Does Keats's error in identifying Cortez as discovering the ocean detract significantly from this poem?
What is the impact of this discovery on Cortez's men? Why are they silent? Why do they look at each other with "WILD surmise"? What does the adjective "wild" suggest about their feelings on seeing the Pacific, about the impact of that discovery on them?
The image of Cortez and his men standing overwhelmed is sharply presented. Note the contrast of Chapman's "loud and bold voice" in the last line of the octet and the "silence" of Cortez and his men in the last line of the poem.
ReferencesThe City University of New York - http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/homer.html#analysis