On First Looking into Chapman's Homer: Poem by John Keats

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  • 0:05 Reading Chapman's Homer
  • 2:22 Keats Tweets a Sonnet
  • 4:13 Summarizing a Sonnet
  • 9:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

Did you ever read a book or see a movie that got you so excited that you wanted to tell someone about it? In the days before Twitter, what would you do? If you're John Keats, you might just write a sonnet about it. And that's how we got 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer.'

Reading Chapman's Homer

We're talking about a sonnet in this lesson, and we love sonnets because they are only 14 lines. So this is going to be short - hooray! Before we get to the sonnet, we're going to talk about how it was written, because it's pretty interesting (and also, if we only talked about the sonnet, because it's short, we wouldn't have enough to say!)

In October of 1816, John Keats was hanging out with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke. They got their hands on a copy of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey translated by this dude named George Chapman - you might have figured that out from the title. Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Shakespeare actually probably read Chapman's translations; that's probably where he got his Homer.

Keats and Clarke had read other translations of Homer. One of the most popular versions at the time was by the poet Alexander Pope. Keats really didn't like Pope's translation - he thought it seemed artificial, and it was stiff and flowery. He didn't really like it because Keats was a Romantic poet, and he wanted something that didn't have artificially ornate language, because that's kind of anti-Romantic. The Romantics were all about naturalness and language that you can understand and all that crunchy, hippie stuff.

So they get to Chapman's translation, and they love it. They stay up all night reading it. It's kind of like when you discover Battlestar Galactica on DVD and you watch episode after episode. You've seen Star Trek, you've seen other sci-fi TV shows, which are good in their own nice, prosthetic-nose, cheesy way, but this is so much more awesome. You get really excited about it. It seems to get at the heart of what sci-fi is, and you watch the whole first season all night long, and then you want to tell everybody about it - which if it's Battlestar, people might make fun of you, but then you can laugh at them later when they watch it and they realize how awesome it is.

But Keats and Cowden did this with Chapman. What they realized, after the equivalent of staying up all night and watching all the seasons, was that most people were reading Pope because it was more recent than Chapman. But Keats wanted to do something about this. He thought it was a travesty that no one was reading this awesome Chapman's Homer translation.

Keats Tweets a Sonnet

If you encountered this situation, you might update your Facebook status to 'OMG! BSG!' (if you were into Battlestar), and your friends would probably comment on it. But if you're Keats, and you don't have Facebook but you still just need to say your piece to the world, you write a sonnet. A sonnet is just a type of poem. Again, it has 14 lines, a very particular rhyme structure and a bunch of other conventions. If free verse poetry is like a blog, where you can just go on and on and on, then a sonnet is like Twitter, in the sense that you have certain constraints. You have to get in and get out, and you have to get creative to fit it all in. Usually on Twitter, it's with punctuation and grammar (#GrammarSnob)!

The sonnet we're talking about is a type of sonnet called a Petrarchan sonnet, which begins with an eight-line section called an octave, just like an octave in music, which is an eight-note span. Then there's a shift (or turn) leading into the final six-line section, which is a sestet, which sounds like six. The rhyme scheme is a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-d-c-d.

After Keats and Clarke stayed up feasting on Chapman's Homer, Keats immediately went to work on a poem. Kind of like fan fiction, but better, because we're still reading it (and I don't think we'll be reading any Twilight fan fiction any time soon). He had it complete and actually waiting for Clarke when his friend came to breakfast the next morning. The poem was published in The Examiner, which was a magazine, and then in Keats' first book, called Poems (very uncreatively). It was really considered the highlight of the book. People loved it; they thought it one of the best sonnets ever written. So let's get to the poem.

Summarizing the Sonnet

The poem begins:

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.

When he talks about traveling in the 'realms of gold', he's actually doing two things. First, he's referencing his own adventures in reading. It's just like 'the pagemaster', and these 'realms' are like libraries, or the books themselves. He's read a lot of books, and most of them are good. That's traveling in the 'realms of gold'. But he's also making an allusion to Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey, (remember, he's reading a translation of Homer) who traveled a lot in that tale. The reference to Apollo works well with both meanings, because Apollo is the Greek god of poetry, so that goes with the book/library meaning. It's also Greek, obviously, so it reinforces the Odysseus meaning. There are so many layers. That's why sonnets are awesome, because they are short but they've got lots of stuff packed in there.

We're going to move on to the next four lines:

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:

This is the lead-up to his revelation moment, which comes, not coincidentally, when the sestet starts - that's that turn that we talked about before. He's saying that he read Homer. He's heard that Homer is this amazing poet. But he couldn't read The Odyssey or The Iliad in the original Greek, because he didn't know Greek. So he's had to rely on translations, like Pope's, that didn't really impress him that much - and he didn't really get what was so great about Homer.

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