Saturday, July 2, 2011

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer - John Keats

Much have I traveled 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 stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Continuing last night's exploration of poetry that looks at other art, we have Keats, talking about the experience he had upon first opening George Chapman's translation of the Iliad.  The structure of the poem is two-fold:  The beginning lines set up a Homeric parallel between Keats and Odysseus, and the ending of the poem recreates the experience by comparing it to an experience of discovery.

In presenting himself as a lost wanderer, who experiences the joys of the world upon opening Chapman's translation, Keats is marking the journey between lost and found.  Once that transition happens, Keats' language suddenly explodes into the realm of the "loud and bold."  He compares the discovery to that of a new planet, which is a momentous and incredible thing to grasp.

The effect of all these comparisons is to express in poetry the wonder of discovering poetry that was previously inaccessible.  Poetry seems to be the right method of expressing this, as it is a joyful form, filled with discovery on the part of the reader.  Really, for me, this is just a breathtaking poem of revelatory joy.  It's like standing at the precipice of a mountain and surveying the incredible horizon.

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