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

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On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Keats was born on 31st October 1795 and died on 23rd February 1821. When Keats died at 25, his career as a poet was only six years old, a career spanning from 1814 until the summer of 1820. His works were published only four years before his death. While he was still alive only two hundred copies of three volumes of Keats poems were sold. The first poem that was published was ‘O Solitude ‘in the year 1816 and his last collection of poems was published in July 1820. John Keats had a very short career as a poet but it was a prolific one and now he is one of the most admired and studied British poets.  However Keats felt that he had not contributed anything during his lifetime. He wrote to Fanny Browne in February 1820, "I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have lov'd the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remember'd’.

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ was composed in October 1816 when he was 20 years old. The poem is about Keats’ excitement about having come across the translation of Homer’s poetry, written by George Chapman. Keats says he has travelled through ‘realms of gold’, states and kingdoms. He has travelled to Greece too. Now these travels are not actual travels; Keats speaks of his travel into the books which were as precious as gold. Then he was told of that one big expanse of a poem written by Homer; which was later translated by George Chapman. The translation was ‘loud and bold’ and Keats was thrilled to read it. The joy is compared to one watching the rare sights of heavenly bodies. Or it could have been ‘.. stout Cortez when with eagle eyes’. Cortez was an explorer and his joy on seeing the new land is compared to Keats’ joy at finding the book by Chapman.  Cortez took his people to the peak of Darien in Panama. Now History says that Cortez never went to Panama. What is important here is the allusion to the explorer who finds a new place and exposes to his people. In the same manner Keats feels that Chapman exposed the glorious works of Homer, which were in Greek, to the English speaking poet lovers. Homer was famous for his epics ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’.

The poem ‘On First Looking into Chapman's Homer’ is a tribute to Homer and Chapman and is Petrarchan sonnet written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDCD CD. There are allusions to people, science and places in this poem. The people referred to are George Chapman, Homer, Apollo and Cortez. Analysts say that Keats must be referring to Balboa who went across the Panama to reach the Pacific Ocean. The places mentioned to are Western Islands near Greece, Pacific Ocean and Darien in the Panama. Skies and planets are the scientific allusions. Some say that he must be speaking of planet Uranus as that planet was found by William Herschel in 1781, closer to his time. A sonnet is generally written on romantic themes. But Keats was not one who stuck to the traditional style and he decided to express his personal joy of discovering Homer through George Chapman through a sonnet.