John Keats, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" (1817)
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.
Keats' contact with George Chapman's 1598 translation of Homer suggests two kinds of influence on his language and thought, Homer's character and scene description, which often open huge digressions from the action for dramatic contrast or thematic reference, and Chapman's Elizabethan English, rough and rich will newly borrowed words and phrasings from Romance languages. To see the first ten and a half lines of Chapman's translation of the Odyssey's opening sentence, click here. Keats' "watcher of the skies" simile may seem familiar to those who remember Milton's description of Satan's shield in Hell as seeming as large as the moon did to Galileo as he observed that celestial body through his telescope. Keats may have intended a subtle allusion to Milton's great extended simile as he wove his own appreciation of Milton's great epic predecessor. Those of you who think important the poet's confusion of Cortez with Balboa, whose soldiers actually were the first Europeans to look upon the Pacific Ocean from a mountain in Panama, may have confused the simile's vehicle (literal/familiar term) with its tenor (intended meaning) and should consider registering as history majors. Of course you could make use of that evidence in a literary analysis that considered Keats' class background and class-anxiety, perhaps considering the poem's connection to John Gibson Lockhart's savage review of Keats' work in "On the Cockney School of English Poetry" (Blackwoods Magazine, October 1817).