On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer
by John Keats
Lines 1-8 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
- Right from the get-go, we have a first-person speaker. Now, it's never a good idea to confuse speaker and poet. Even when a poem is written in first person, that poet could be speaking in character.
- In this case, though, it's just like Keats to start us off with a reference to himself. The Romantics were notoriously self-centered. We don't mean that too rudely, it's just that, in contrast to previous generations who wrote about the external world, they wrote about their own experience. If this poem were written a hundred years earlier, it probably would have been called "Chapman's Homer." But Keats wants to talk about his experience reading the book.
- There's also a metaphor right off the bat. What are "realms of gold"? Well, a couple of things, most likely. From the title, we understand that he is talking about the realms of literature and art. He's saying that he's read a lot of books in his day, but hadn't seen nothing until ol' Chapman came around. But he's also setting up some of the imagery of an explorer, which he will return to at the end. The new world was the place explorers went to seek fortunes, particularly on the look-out for precious metals.
- It's important to see this verb from Keats: "travell'd." (This is just an abbreviation of "travelled," in case you're wondering.) At this point in his life, he hadn't made any significant trips. He hadn't seen any of these things. But in the wonderful world of poetry, we don't call that fraud, we call it metaphor. And really, we've all felt that way—a great book, a great movie does have the power to take us to a whole new place.
- Keats claims to have been around. He descends in scale from entire realms, to states and then to kingdoms. Generally, poets use lists (often lists of three) to convey a wide range. Metaphorically, then, he is telling us that he's read all kinds of poetry.
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
- Look, you're going to find out either way, so we might as well tell you now: Keats is, well, not so good with his social studies. If he's talking about islands that have anything to do with Apollo, he's talking about islands on the Aegean sea, the islands from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. But here's the thing—that's on the eastern side of Greece, and it's sure a long way east of London, where Keats was when he wrote the poem. So why does Keats talk about western islands? He's not really an idiot, he's just being very sneaky. Once again, Keats is setting us up for imagery of explorers heading off to the new world (and the West Indies).
- We really are supposed to be picturing Greece, too. These were the islands where amazing things happened to Odysseus and his crew on their long journey home. The Cyclops, the lotus-eaters, dudes getting turned into hogs—you name it.
- A "bard" is a poet, usually one who spoke his poems for entertainment. They are particularly associated with the epic tradition. It's worth noting that Keats felt called to write epic poetry and adored bards such as Homer, Shakespeare and Milton.
- "Fealty" is a medieval term for loyalty, referring specifically to tenants owing fealty to their lords. In this case, the bards owed loyalty to the god of poetry who governed these poetry-inspiring isles.
- Keats might not technically have believed in Apollo, but he had a more than healthy respect for the Greek exaltation of poetry. Once, he and his friend Leigh Hunt fashioned and wore laurel crowns for an entire evening. Young Keats even wrote a poem about the occasion.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
- "Oft" is a tots a shorter way to say "often." We hear people complain all the time about all the apostrophes and weird shortenings. Why do they do that?
- And we smile and say: "IDK." But then we say, "J/K" and add a smiley face, because anytime you see a shortened word in a poem, odds are that it has something to do with preserving the meter. For more on that in this poem, check out "Form and Meter."
- The "wide expanse" is a metaphor for Homer's sprawling epic poems. Keats, like other young men, believed that size mattered. He became obsessed, almost immediately, with writing a long epic poem.
- In fact, most of his famous sonnets deal with this desire to write longer poetry.
- Think about it: all the imagery so far in this poem has been BIG. That's just what we'd expect.
- Sadly, Keats is most well-known for his shorter poems. Most of his longer works were forced and widely criticized.
- It's interesting that Keats says he has only "been told" of Homer's work. By age twenty-one, he would have almost certainly have read a version of Homer.
- This probably serves as another indication of how highly he values Chapman's translation.
- (Biography note: "Chapman" is George Chapman, an English dramatist of the Renaissance period.)
- Before reading Chapman's Homer, all those other versions seemed tragically secondhand. More literally, though, Keats probably knew some Latin, but couldn't read Homer in his original Greek.
- Why is Homer "deep-brow'd"? Did he just need some manscaping on his unibrow? Maybe. He lived a long time ago. Actually, this is an epithet, something commonly used by Homer to identify characters. Because poets would speak their poems aloud to the audiences, they would attach certain identifying labels to their characters, such as 'gray-eyed Athena' or 'wily Odysseus.' When the epithet is more metaphorical like this one, it's also called a kenning. "Deep-brow'd" refers to Homer's wisdom, shown by the deep furrows in his forehead.
- "Demesne" is a super-old version of a word we still use: domain. Keats is heaping praise on Homer for reigning supreme over the epic tradition.
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
- Sonnets always have turns. (Oh, did we mention that this is a sonnet? Well, it is, gang. Now, scootch over to "Form and Meter" for more on that form of poetry.) No, we're not talking about crossing lanes here. By "turn" we mean a shift in the poem's logic, moving from one point to the next.
- These two lines wrap up the first section, called the octave (eight lines, octave—get it?). They give us a neat little set-up for the second section of the poem by turning the poem toward its main argument. And it does all that with the word "yet."
- Keats goes on and on about everything he's read and the amazing realms he's seen, but now he drops the bomb—they were all nothing compared to Chapman's poetry.
- Notice that we get our first really physical detail. Sure we've seen realms and kingdoms and talked about Homer and Apollo, but here we "breathe" air. We actually feel something real. That's exactly the point—that's just what Chapman's Homer did for Keats. He took what was more abstract and made it real.
- Look at the flip-flopped syntax—it feels like this ought to read: "Yet I did never breathe…" Instead, it begins like a question. That's a sneaky way to draw the reader in and put something at stake. He answers the question in the next line, before he's even asked it. But for that one line, we are wondering just like him: did he never breathe its pure serene?
- We're aren't sure what Homer Keats is talking about here in line seven. "Serene"? This is the guy who wrote about poking out a monster's eye with a burning spike, who dreamed up a belching whirlpool monster, and a multi-headed, body-chomping cliff-dweller. Homer's stories are a lot of things, but they aren't serene. This shows how focused Keats is on the beauty of poetry. For Keats, it isn't the content of the story that makes a poem sing, but the language itself.
- And the Homer he discovers in Chapman's translation has a gorgeous voice. Even if he is talking about shrieking sirens.
- That's also why the verbs "heard" and "speak" are so important in line eight. Epic poets were meant to be heard. The words were meant to boom and echo in the ears of the audience.