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On “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

August 13th, 2019 | 5 min read

By E. J. Hutchinson

John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a poem about the discovery of new terrains of the imagination made possible by the translation of great works into one’s mother tongue.

The “Chapman” referred to in both the poem’s title and the poem itself is George Chapman, the Elizabethan poet who was the first to translate the entirety of Homer’s two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, into English; having been begun in 1598, they appeared in full in 1616. Exactly two hundred years later, in 1816, his project was immortalized forever by Keats’s poem. It goes like this:

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.

In formal terms, the poem is a sonnet, specifically, a variation of the Petrarchan sonnet; its rhyme-scheme is ABBA ABBA CDCDCD. The verbal music of the poem is very pleasant, which one can hear by reading it out loud (stop now and do this), but here I want to talk more about what it says than about how it says it.

When I said above that the poem was about “discovery,” the term was not fortuitous–for, as we shall see in a moment, Keats is assimilating or adapting the language of scientific and navigational discovery (he lived both after and in a great period of such discoveries) to literary exploration.

One notices this adaptation from the opening line: “Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold.” It sounds like an adventure after Eldorado. One catches it, too, in the references to Hernán Cortés and Darién in Panama. (Panama was actually explored by Vasco Núñez de Balboa rather than Cortés; but even Homer nods.)

As one reads the poem, however, he realizes that Keats isn’t talking about “literal” exploration at all. It’s a metaphor for his wide reading–entirely appropriate for a poet.

But there’s a catch: Keats does not have immediate access to all the greatest poems. Notice the transition from lines 1-4 to lines 5-6. In the first four lines, Keats has travelled. He has seen many states and kingdoms. He has been around many islands (“which bards in fealty to Apollo hold” is our first clue–besides the title of the poem–that we are talking about texts and not topography). This is the conceit of autopsy: he has seen it all himself, has taken it in as an eye-witness–been there, done that.

But then he says: “Oft of one wide expanse had I been told.” He’s now in the realm of rumor, of hearsay. This is an expanse he doesn’t know at first-hand. And what is this realm? It is the realm “that deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne.” (“Demesne” is an archaism for “domain.”) And so Keats only knew about Homer by reputation–that is, he only knew of him this way “till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.”

It may helpful to note at this juncture that Keats didn’t know Greek. His only avenue into Homer, then, was via translation. And the vividness of Chapman’s rendering exercises a powerful effect on him. Keats is careful not to collapse entirely the distinction between translator and author; it is Chapman that he hears speak in the first instance, not Homer.

But a good translation is like a window into the original, so much so that, even when he hears Chapman speak (the auditory conceit again; cf. “had I been told” above), it is Homer’s domain whose atmosphere he breathes. This is a manifest heightening of the metaphor: hearing is in some sense external, but through the image of “breath” Keats is now able to incorporate Homer into his very self, to internalize him. When reading a translation, one does not get only the original–but, somehow, one does get the original.

This experience gives Keats the frisson of a great scientific discovery, almost beyond the capacity of the verbal (“Then felt I”). He is analogous–so he seems to himself–“like some watcher of the skies,” a line that was later used as the title of a Genesis song, “when a new planet swims into his ken” (another archaism meaning “range of sight or vision”). The reference is to the discovery of Uranus by Sir William Herschel in 1781.

Or maybe it gives him the frisson of a great exploratory discovery, like Cortés (actually Balboa, as noted above) discovering the Pacific. Observe how the visual metaphor dominates: when he hears Chapman speak, Keats becomes like a “watcher”; the object is in his “ken”; he is like one with “eagle eyes” and “stares.” Keats, that is, reunites the sundered metaphors of the first six lines, sight and sound, vision and speech. Chapman’s speaking now gives him a vision, a new “realm of gold” (presumably not a coincidence in line 1 given the presence of the New World in the latter half of the poem) in which to travel.

But there is a further paradox. The union of sight and speech has a dumbfounding effect. Cortés’s men “look’d at each other with a wild surmise–silent.” One gathers that Keats’s initiation into the Homeric mysteries occasioned a similar reaction of happily bewildered and overawed quietude. It is not going too far to imagine that his breathing of Homer’s “pure serene” took his breath away. And all this from a translation of a poem written 2500 years before his time.

There are things that translations can’t do. They can’t serve as the foundation, for example, for academic work on ancient texts. But there is much that they can do. They can introduce a reader to new territories, new literary geographies. They can be an aid to help readers without the requisite languages to realize in some degree why books that have the reputation of being good are, well, good. Of perhaps at least equal importance, they can be fun, a way to discover, or rediscover, the joys of reading in the works of artists and thinkers who would otherwise be closed off and inaccessible to us. In doing so, one also often discovers something about oneself, in a way that is personally as significant as the discovery of Uranus or the Pacific Ocean. They can help us see even familiar texts in a new light, as Emily Wilson’s recent Odyssey or Sarah Ruden’s Confessions so successfully do. For all of these reasons, translations are valuable, as Keats reminds us, while making his own miniature work of art in the process.

(I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t add as an addendum: if given the opportunity, as Keats wasn’t, you should still learn Greek!)