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Reflections on Keats’s “Chapman’s Homer”

7 November 2012 3,790 views No Comment

by Varun Vijay

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

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-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 star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ is, by common consent, Keats’s first achieved poem, signaling his emergence as an authentic poetic voice. A first reading alone forces us to this judgment. There is an undeniable transcendence in the final two lines: ‘Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.’ It recalls Cleanth Brooks’s observation regarding Wordsworth, who despite preferring the ‘frontal attack’ is still dependent on paradox. Here, the sublime quality of the final line results from the intersection of a kind of silence and a kind of restless thought. They are intertwined until infinity, the meaning of each term derived from the other, and yet they are separate, because only the final silence moves beyond.

And from the point of the poem’s sublimity, we are led to its engine-room, the workings of which we question. What is the poetic assertion that enables Keats to reach the height? And what anxiety, what crucial truth, does that assertion serve to conceal? As with any great poem, these questions may be meditated forever, and I do not have the critical resources or strength to even begin an answer, but I can try to show why these answers are important.

Yesterday, I made a first expedition into the West Stacks in Green Library, looking for a specific book. As I grasped the door-handle, about to turn it, the door suddenly seemed so close I had to read the sign again. The space held between the shelves did not seem to belong to me. In short, I felt somewhat dazed and, as a result, annoyed with myself. For a while I was searching in the wrong row, before I sat down and checked the index numbers again. Yet even when I found the book, I needed a minute before I could read.

And now, I can’t help but think of Keats’s sonnet, which seems to illuminate a brief but uncanny experience. Even within his poetic assertion, Keats forces himself to consider a fact—that his reading of Homer is inescapably mediated, no longer by Pope, who failed in his task, but by Chapman instead. And Keats achieves a turn by using this fact to transform himself from passive reader to poet. Chapman is shifted from his place as poet, as subject, to the object of Keats’s praise, while earlier in the poem Keats’s attitude towards Homer likewise becomes active-critical. ‘Oft of one wide expanse had I been told/ That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne’—Keats not only recognizes his lack of knowledge, but also subtly refuses to acknowledge Homer’s greatness until it is visible to him. He awaits when ‘a new planet swims into his ken,’ but each term in that line is somehow constructed only around him.

And this is only a fragment of the poem’s meaning, which is certainly not without ambivalence. But, just now, for me, Keats could only mean that the doors are never locked, and that space can always become ours—even if others were here before.

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