Analysis of “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats

You probably meant to take your own notes on “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” but you thought that would ruin the experience. Searching for my notes online, however, didn’t detract at all from reading one of John Keats’ most beautiful poems written about reading a classic.

If you would like step-by-step instructions on how to do a poetry analysis, follow the link.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

English Romantic Poetry Lesson Plans

Yes, you can spend multiple class periods on poetry without the dreaded 2-minute reading followed by 49 minutes of stammering. The British Romanticism Teaching Guide includes an overview of British Romanticism and an analysis of selected poems by William Blake, William Wordsworth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and John Keats.

Much have I travelled 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 Cortes when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Notes for “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

First, read the poem. Next, 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 Analysis

Poetic picture with link to poetry lesson plans.

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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.
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