13 July 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/28

On first looking into Chapman's Homer

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-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.

John Keats

Last week's poem on reading Dryden's Virgil brought to mind Keats's famous sonnet on his first reading of Chapman's Homer.

The Chapman referred to is the English Renaissance poet and dramatist George Chapman (1559 - 1634), whose translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, published in 1616 as The Whole Works of Homer, were the first complete versions in English. They remained the most popular until Pope published his renditions in the early eighteenth century. Though Pope and his style – elegant, clear, satirical, moralizing, rational, epigrammatic – were prized by that quintessential Romantic, Lord Byron, many others of the Romantic generation turned away from him towards earlier, craggier poets. After reading Pope's Homer, Keats must have found Chapman's closer to what he felt Homer should be: powerful, primal – somewhat rough and wild, mighty and sublime. It's ironic that one of the most familiar poems in English is a description of what it's like to come across a new poem that blows your mind open.

Keats positions himself throughout not just as an explorer, but one who seeks out the farthest reaches of the world. These territories/poets he has explored are not only at the boundaries of human knowledge, they are described in fanciful and legendary terms, and all these qualities are suitable for poetry. He begins by mentioning the realms of gold, which brings to mind the fabulous El Dorado; goodly states and kingdoms to my mind brings up images from medieval romance, as does the feudal notion of fealty, that is, a vassal's sworn loyalty, in this case to not to a king or baron but to Apollo, the Greek god of (among other things) music and poetry; the western islands suggest lands out where the sun sets, that is, at the very edge of the world (the term can also refer to the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands off the west coast of northern Scotland, which puts them near the edge of Europe).

In the second quatrain, Keats sums up the mighty reputation of Homer: he has often been told of the Greek poet, whom he describes as deep-browed, which suggests a profundity of thought and feeling, and aptly echoes the famous Homeric epithets (the wine-dark sea; Hector, breaker of horses). The territory Homer rules is both wide and an expanse: the terms mutually reinforce a sense of great breadth in the Greek poet, with an implication in expanse that this already broad sweep can only increase. Yet Keats has never truly grasped the reason for this great reputation – until he reads Chapman's translation. He describes it in two ways that help convey the power of Homer. First, continuing the comparison of reading poetry to traveling in foreign lands, he can now breathe the pure serene of Homer (serene here means an expanse of clear and calm sky): that is, he is lifted up, elevated (and perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the heady air upon the peak in Darien) into a state of simplicity and nobility. (These are two of the qualities that Matthew Arnold would insist, years later, were essential to a successful translation of Homer: simplicity, nobility, directness, and rapidity.) Yet Chapman is also loud and bold, with an essential energy and vigor to bring life to the epic poet's monumental and sublime qualities.

Having established that he is an experienced traveler in the far reaches of poetry, that he has heard much of the great Homer, and that he never fully appreciated him until he read Chapman's translation, Keats then uses the final sestet to convey the emotional impact of the discovery. He continues the theme of himself as an explorer, but this discovery has now moved him beyond the earthly realm into the universal: he feels like "some watcher of the skies" who finds a new planet orbiting into his ken, that is, his range of knowledge and/or sight. This isn't just fanciful; Uranus was discovered by Sir William Herschel a few years before Keats was born, and Neptune and Pluto were only noted long after his death; scientific advances must have brought with them an exciting sense of a rapidly expanding, even explosive, growth of world-changing knowledge.

The striking final comparison contains one of the famous errors in English poetry, up there with the seacoast that Shakespeare gave Bohemia: stout Balboa, not stout Cortez, was the first European explorer who crossed the isthmus of Panama and brought back to the wider world knowledge of the vast ocean that would be named Pacific. (Stout in this context means brave or intrepid, not portly.) Well, as they say, even Homer nods. Perhaps Keats misremembered because he was drawn to the crisp sound of Cortez. It's still a terrific image: the searching eagle eyes, the mountaintop in the rough uncultivated terrain they named Darien, the vast and glittering expanse of water, hitherto unknown, that stunned the men into silence as they almost helplessly stare at each other, overcome by a sudden psychic leap forward into knowledge that will leave their map of the world forever altered.

I took this from the Penguin Classics edition of The Complete Poems of John Keats, edited by John Barnard.

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