In this series I have been writing about poems which I consider to be the greatest poems in the English language. I use the word ‘great’ not only to signify greatness of expression, but greatness of theme. Personally, I don’t believe that poetry is ‘the best words in the best order’ (whatever that might mean). But I do believe that poetry is the best (or at least the most important) thoughts expressed in the most felicitously chosen words. In my view, a truly great poem needs to tackle a subject of profound and universal significance. ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats certainly fulfils both these criteria.
Since it is only a sonnet, I can afford to include the entire text of this poem in my analysis of it. It will doubtless be familiar to most of you, but it’s still worth re-reading:
Much have I travelled 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.
Astonishingly, John Keats wrote this sonnet at the age of twenty-one, and he wrote the first draft overnight. It came as a result of reading the translation of Homer’s works by George Chapman. Wikipedia says (something I never realised until now) that Keats would have been familiar with the ‘more polished’ translations by Pope and Dryden, but found Chapman’s ‘vigorous and earthy’ paraphrase to be a revelation.
This poem has tremendous personal significance for me because it was while reading this poem that I first experienced the very thrill of discovery it describes. I read it in my early teens, and it instantly took my breath away. I’m sure I had enjoyed poetry before—in fact, I know I did—but this poem revealed to me the depths that poetry can unveil to us. In fact, I can remember the very lines that had this effect on me. It was the ninth and tenth lines—“then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.”
The night sky seems like a ready-made metaphor for awe and wonder. C.S. Lewis, when answering the objection that the size of the universe makes a mockery of the Christian worldview, wrote that he would feel cramped in a universe he could see to the end of. Think of all the expressions (which are charming poetry in themselves) we use to express transcendence; “Reach for the stars”, “the sun, moon and stars”, “over the moon”, and so forth. It’s not only the span of the heavens, but their solemnity that haunts us. I have sometimes looked at the moon and considered it too good to be true, too poetic to be real. “High and preposterous and separate” is how Philip Larkin once described it. From ancient mythology to the opening credits of Star Trek, the heavens above us have always been the supreme source and expression of awe, wonder and transcendence.
Of course, poets have been writing about the starry sky for as long have poets have existed, so what makes Keats’s use of this metaphor so memorable? Firstly, it’s the particular scenario he chooses. The idea of an astronomer—a pioneer astronomer, at that—becoming aware of a whole new planet for the first time seemed to me so exciting it was almost heart-stopping.
Secondly, Keats’s turn of phrase here is one of the happiest ever conceived. “Swims into his ken” is a perfect union of thought with language. The moment when a new idea, a new possibility, comes into somebody’s mind is so poetic in itself that we resort to ready-made poetry to express it; a light-bulb switching on in cartoons, the expression ‘the penny dropped’ (from slot machines) in everyday language, or the exclamation ‘Eureka!’, with its associations of Archimedes leaping from the bath. But none of these have the grace, the fluidity, the sense of effortlessness and receptiveness in Keats’s expression. It is no wonder that the phrase has been used semi-humorously ever since, because it is unforgettable.
The other metaphor the poem uses to express the wonder of discovery is also a rather obvious one—the discovery of the New World (in particular, the Pacific Ocean). I remember, when I first read this poem, assuming that this was the moment that European explorers realized America was a whole new continent and not an approach to India. I’m probably hopelessly wrong about that, but who cares? (Apparently, Keats himself was wrong about who discovered the Pacific; and, when it was pointed out to him, he didn’t care either.)
The discovery of the New World has always fascinated me, in the sense that there was a New World there waiting to be discovered. It’s not the case that there were dozens of New Worlds; the discovery of America by Europeans is a unique moment in human history, one that could only happen once, and that I can easily imagine not happening (either because America didn’t exist or because it would already be known about). As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." The last clause may be unduly pessimistic, but it was certainly an unrepeatable experience of its kind.
Again, it’s not only the metaphor (which is commonplace, and none the worse for it), but the way Keats expresses the metaphor that makes it so unforgettable. He ends the sonnet on a moment of suspense, a moment of hushed amazement; “silent, upon a peak in Darien” is possibly the most deliciously understated final line in English poetry. “Looked at each other with a wild surmise” is equally perfect, and the extravagance of ‘wild surmise’ is an effective counterpoint to the falling note of the final line.
Of course, the poem is about the Homeric epics. I had not read the Homeric epics at this time, and even when I did—I read The Iliad translation of E.V. Rieu, and the Odyssey of Alexander Pope—I don’t think either of them conveyed to me the sense of sunlit exuberance that this sonnet conveys. When I was a child, one of my brothers had a picture book of ancient Greek and Roman legends, and from this and many other sources I derived my image of ancient Greece as being ‘the realms of gold’ and ‘the pure serene’. To me it was all gleaming white marble statues, elegantly fluted pillars, and the crisp light of early morning. There may have been bloodshed and horrors, but there was no banality or dullness. It seemed like the childhood of the world—everything fresh, vigorous and vivid. I think this is a fairly common view, and one which Keats’s sonnet marvellously conveys.
The joy of travel, both real and imaginative, is captured in the phrases ‘the realms of gold’ ‘round many Western islands’ (islands are always more exciting than landmasses), and ‘goodly states and kingdoms’. It’s hard to really analyse the magic of these particular lines. Aside from periods of reaction in my teens, I have always been a nationalist, because my attitude towards sovereign realms has always been ‘the more the merrier’. And there is a special pleasure in small sovereign realms. Little as I knew about history, I understood (vaguely) that the ‘realms’ and ‘islands’ of which Homer was writing were much smaller than the nations of my time, that they were semi-mythical, and that they were mysterious—places you had to step foot on to learn about. Human storytelling and human fantasy seems unable to dispense with the idea of little island societies that are both perilous and enchanted (either metaphorically or literally). I think they will always be our image par excellence of travel and journeying. This sonnet captures that ageless fascination better than it has ever been captured.
Several times, while writing this article, I have felt a physical frisson of pleasure and amazement, something which this poem (not uniquely, but especially) has always provoked in me. I remember writing in my diary, in my late teens, that it would be a sad day if it ever ceased to provoke that reaction. Twenty years later, I can give thanks that this hasn’t happened.