It's 1816. John Keats is twenty-one years old and standing at the edge of a greatness he feels sure he will achieve. So what does he do with all that excitement? He writes a poem, of course.
Keats is a Romantic poet, meaning he wrote passionately about his emotions and personal experiences. (They did lots of other stuff too—check it out.) This sonnet proclaims the virtue and beauty of a book he'd read. Actually, it's not even a new book, just a translation—George Chapman's version of Homer's work (check out more about Homer here). Really, though, the poem grows bigger than just a book review. By the end, we see that Keats has had a new encounter with the power of imagination.
The sonnet, like so many of Keats's poems, has a tragic tone as we look back on it. Keats lived until only age twenty-five, succumbing to tuberculosis like several other members of his family. "On Looking into Chapman's Homer" is a window into the ambitions of a hopeful young man, who lived just long enough to leave us with some of the greatest poems in the English language.
This one, for example, first appeared in the London newspaper The Examiner, in 1816, and then again a year later in Keats' first collection, given the very creative title of Poems. For John Keats, reading this one book, seeing the worlds created by the author inspires him to create. He feels as if he is an explorer looking out on an undiscovered ocean, a world of possibility. And that enthusiasm brings us along for the ride.
Maybe you didn't eat the paste like we did, but you probably remember all the crafty fun of kindergarten. Cut the shapes, color the paper—everything was about using your imagination. The word got thrown around a lot, especially by this guy, but, by the time we got to second grade or so, all that talk died down and it was all long-division and topic sentences.
It's a shame that imagination has been branded as a kid's idea. For the Romantic poets, imagination was everything. It was the human capacity to create, discover, invent. Imagination was really just another way of saying intelligence.
Imagination is also tough. In the Hebrew Bible, even God needed a break after six days of creating the world. Imagination takes a tremendous amount of energy—energy that is sparked by imaginative works.
Come on, you've listened to your favorite song and then tried for three weeks to write one of your own. You even tried to learn guitar because you saw your friend in the talent show. You've written Twilight fan fiction, or maybe knitted a Team Edward tea cozy. Fine, maybe that's just us, but you get the point.
John Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is about that same moment of inspiration. It's about being captivated by something amazing and pushed by it to create something amazing yourself. So, dive right in and see what you can take from Keats' inspiration and apply it to your own.