On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer - Analysis


‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’, by John Keats

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ was a sonnet written by John Keats after he stayed up all night enthralled by George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s The Iliad and Odyssey. It is about the (metaphorical) journey Keats went through reading these translations and the profound effect they had on him. It is thus a poem about the moving effects of art and literature, and how transformative events can happen internally and not just externally.

Important Background

John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Romanticism was a movement in the late 18th through to the 19th century that emphasised emotional experience and developed largely as a response to the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment period. Romanticism opposed many conservative and traditional ideas, both in art and society. Whereas realism and classical notions of art tried to depict the world as concretely and as accurately as possible, romanticism emphasised the individual’s subjective consciousness and perception. This notion is evident in this poem, as rather than depicting some event or voyage Keats appropriates a number of historical and contemporary allusions as a metaphor for his own intense and emotional experience reading the translation.

On the other hand, The Iliad and Odyssey are the two most enduring works of Homer, a poet from Ancient Greece. These two epic poems narrated the journey of kings and men across islands and into battle with mythical creatures and raging voyages. Probably the most well-known and enduring legacy from these works is the Battle of Troy, described by Homer in The Iliad.

Analysis

The first thing to mention is the structure of the poem. Keats wrote it as a Petrarchan sonnet, which has the typical pattern of an octave and a sestet, whereby the sextet resolves or concludes a problem or setting introduced in the octave. In this poem, Keats tells us that he has often heard people speak of Homer’s works but despite being so well-read and having experienced so much else he had never “breathe[d] its pure serene”. However the seset begins with ‘Then’, signalling a shift after hearing “Chapman speak out loud and bold”. This shift is also referred to in poetry as a ‘volta’. While there are no shortage of devices in the poem that suggest discovery and change has been made, the volta is a particularly significant one as the poem is built around this very structure of a problem which gets resolved. It thus occupies a silent position in Keats’ work, and the thesis of the poem is the profound impact Chapman’s translation has on him. Click here to download the full analysis.