Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
- Ah, this is the real turn of the poem. 'Member when we said that this poem was a sonnet? Well, more specifically, it's a Petrarchan sonnet, meaning that, after the octave, the poem turns at the beginning of the sestet (the last six lines). There are lots of types of turns in a sonnet—from question to answer, from point to counter-point, or maybe it's just a shift in speaker or tone. This turn, though, is a shift in time.
- Lines seven and eight are the moment of change, the moment when Keats first "hears" Chapman's Homer. (Recall from line 8 that Keats describes reading Chapman's translation as hearing him "speak out loud and bold.")
- When that happens, everything changes. The key word there is "Then." It emphasizes what his life was like before this event and what he is like after.
- Keats has a flair for the dramatic. He doesn't feel like an astronomer, he feels like a "watcher of the skies." It's more ancient and, naturally, more poetic.
- We've also shifted our metaphor. We aren't looking at realms and kingdoms anymore—we're looking at the whole universe. We talked before about Keats loving bigger and better things. This epic poem inspires Keats to more and more ambitious goals.
- To say that the planet "swims" into the astronomer's "ken" (or, range of sight) is an example of extreme metaphorical language called catachresis, which is a radical misuse of a word. In this case it is the application of the verb "swim" to an entire planet.
- The metaphor here is pretty amazing. Say you're an astronomer in Keats's day. You don't have GPS, you don't have a super-powerful telescope. You're just blindly scanning the skies. You slow down a little bit and then… eureka! There's something new swimming into that little magnified circle. You've found a new planet, a totally new world that no one has ever seen before.
- This isn't just a metaphor, though. This was also breaking news. Only a few decades before this poem was written, a new planet had been discovered by a British astronomer. These days, we find new stuff in space all the time, but this was the first new planet that had been unknown to ancient astronomers.
- Centuries had passed with everyone believing that we had things pretty much mapped out up there.
- What planet had they discovered? Uranus. (We see you trying to hold back a giggle—how immature!)
- To get back to that work "ken" for a moment—there is a contrast here between the narrow scope of vision we see in a telescope and the huge amounts of space we see in that small window. We could apply that further to reading a book—it's just words on a page, yet whole worlds unfold before us.
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
- The image shifts one more time and we're back to explorers of the new western world. Who is stout Cortez? He must be referring to famed Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. But, see… here's where things get a little awkward for John Keats. See, it wasn't Cortés who discovered the Pacific for the Spanish—it was a guy named Vasco Nuñez de Balboa. Keats had done his homework; he read lots about explorers in the America. This time, though, it seems he just got a little confused.
- We can cut Keats some slack, though. This poem was written in one night. He had been reading the translation of Homer with his friend the night before and, by the next morning, this poem was already in the mail. We're sure you've never made a mistake at three o'clock in the morning.
- Also, the whole Cortés-Balboa thing isn't really the point. In fact, no one called Keats out on this error during his lifetime, though plenty of people had to know it wasn't right. Because the point of the poem is that it isn't about being the first to discover something, it's about your personal discovery. That was the Romantic impulse. Who cares about the specific experience of others? This is about my moment.
- We were primed earlier in the poem for these explorers. Keats already talked about "realms of gold" and "western islands." Even though we are a long way from talking about a book, the poem is still unified.
- That's probably why we get the epithet "stout" for Cortez. No this isn't a comment on his weight—"stout" here means bold or daring. That's the effect that Chapman's Homer has on Keats. He feels bolder, more inspired, having seen this new world.
- The "eagle eyes" are echoed in a poem Keats will write a year later on another piece of art, the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. In that poem, though, the ancient works and the wide world cause Keats to worry that he will never achieve his dream before he dies. He feels like a "sick eagle" looking at the skies. It's an interesting contrast using the same image.
- Line twelve only alludes to it, but Balboa was selfish. The story goes that he and his men had heard that they were close to the rumored ocean (the Pacific) and had been told by natives that they would be able to glimpse it from the summit of the next mountain. They trudged up, but Balboa stopped his men short and went up alone, wanting to be the first to see it. The dash gives us a strong break, contrasting Balboa (or for Keats, Cortés) on top alone, and "all his men" below.
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
- Okay, so here's where the really sneaky stuff happens. To get it, you've got to keep the scene straight—Balboa/Cortés is up on the mountain, seeing the Pacific for himself, and having this incredible moment of rapture. (Where are his men? A few steps down the trail, eating sandwiches and staring at each other probably.)
- The key phrase though, is "wild surmise." To surmise is to suppose something is true, even without evidence. So they are sitting around trying to imagine for themselves what this new ocean would be like.
- Why does that matter? Because it tells us exactly what Keats believed was so great about being a poet. A poet's job—in his mind—was to scramble up the mountain ahead of everyone and then to report the wonders and beauties he had seen. That's what Chapman had done for Keats. Keats couldn't "see" the vast "ocean" of Homer's work, because it was in Greek. He needed a "stout" explorer to help him visualize it and experience it. Poets are mediators of impossible beauty. Of course, this metaphor sort of breaks down when you remember that Balboa could have just called his guys up the mountain with him.
- On to some geography: Darien is a province of Panama. (This is even more evidence that Keats was really thinking of Balboa. Cortés never travelled in Panama.)
- The final line brings us back to the main clause of the sentence. We are led away from Balboa/Cortés staring at the Pacific to hear the men chatting with each other down below, but now we are called back to the peak. The word "Silent" breaks the iambic meter of the poem. Instead of a normal da-DUM beat, we get SI-lence, DUM-da (check out "Form and Meter" for more on that sorta stuff). It is more forceful, calling us to attention, telling us to shut up. And with that, we are ending the poem in a moment of quiet reflection—a very Romantic thing to do.