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An Analysis of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

By Trent Lorcher

You could make your own notes when reading a poem, but that would take away from the joy and wonder! Or just use this analysis to review and get ideas for writing your own.

First, read the poem, which can be found here:"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Next, you can do your own analysis using these notes as inspiration:

  1. Poetic Form: "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is an Italian Sonnet. An Italian Sonnet, in addition to incorporating a specific meter and a specific rhyme scheme, possesses a specific poem development. The first eight lines present the situation. The end of the eighth line is the volta, or turn. It is here the theme of the poem turns. The final six lines clarify the poem's theme. Form reflects content.
  2. Rhyme Scheme: The abbaabbacdcdcd rhyme scheme mirrors the development of the poem, with the last six lines differing from the pattern established in the first eight lines.
  3. Meter: iambic pentameter
  4. Allusions: George Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare famous for his translation of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.
  5. The first eight lines simply state metaphorically that the poet has read Homer. The turn occurs in line 8 as the poet informs us that he did "never breathe its pure serene / Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold" (7-8). In other words, Keats had read The Iliad and The Odyssey before, yet he never truly saw its beauty until reading Chapman's translation.
  6. The final six lines compares his reading of Chapman's translation to that of an explorer.
  7. Demesne means domain: "Oft of one wide expanse had I been told / That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne" (5-6). In other words often has the poet read the works or domain of Homer.
  8. Ken refers to the range of what one can know or understand; one's range of vision. The use of ken in line nine--"When a new planet swims into his ken"-- has a double meaning: it literally refers to an astronomer seeing a new planet in the vision of a telescope, but symbolically represents an expansion of one's range of understanding.
  9. Cortez was a Spanish explorer who first saw the Pacific Ocean "upon a peak in Darien" (14) (The first Spaniard to spot the Pacific was Balboa). Keats compares himself to these explorers as they "Look'd at each other with a wild surmise" (13).

Literary Conventions

Homeresque Sculpture 

The poem uses several epic/Homeric conventions:

  1. The setting of an epic poem encompasses the entire world. The poem begins, "Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold / And many goodly states and kingdoms seen / Round many western islands have I been" (1-3). The setting of the poem includes many realms, states, and kingdoms of the Mediterranean area where "bards in fealty to Apollo hold" (4). Throw in the "new planet" in line 10 and the Pacific ocean in line 12 and we have a setting broader in scope than anything Homer ever wrote. The broader setting matches the broader understanding Keats receives from Chapman's translation.
  2. Epic poetry involves Greek deities, such as Apollo in line 4.
  3. Homer uses stock epithets, stock phrases used repeatedly to describe things or characters. "Deep-brow'd Homer" resembles many of the stock epithets present in The Odyssey and The Iliad.
  4. An epic/Homeric simile is a long drawn out comparison using like or as. The final six lines of the poem contains two similes, the first incorporates lines 9-10 and compares Keats' discovery of Chapman's translation to that of an astronomer discovering a new planet. The second makes up lines 11-14 and compares the poet reading Chapman's translation to Cortez and his crew first setting eyes on the Pacific Ocean.

What do you think? If you have a different opinion, share your thoughts in the comments.