Classification of poem
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Keats was so moved
by the power
and aliveness of Chapman's translation of Homer that he
wrote this sonnet--after spending all night reading Homer
with a friend. The poem expresses the intensity of Keats's
experience; it also reveals how passionately he cared about
poetry. To communicate how profoundly the revelation of Homer's
genius affected him, Keats uses imagery of exploration and
discovery. In a sense, the reading experience itself becomes a
Homeric voyage, both for the poet and the reader.
Written in October 1816, this is the first
entirely successful (surviving) poem he wrote. John Middleton
Murry called it "one of the finest sonnets in the English
The lines of the sonnet appear in the left
column; those lines are explained in the right
column. Words in purple are explained in the right column.
Lines of the Poem
Explanation of Lines
Much have I travelled in the
realms of gold
This phrase can be read in two closely related ways,
(1) as the world of imagination and/or (2) as the world of poetry. The
difference in meaning between these two readings is a matter of
emphasis, because poetry is produced by the imagination.
goodly states and
Having a pleasing appearance or character; large or
Round many western islands have I been
This line suggests the voyages of Odysseus, the hero of
Which bards1 in fealty2 to Apollo3
1 A professional poet who composed and sang
songs about heroes
2 Devoted fidelity or loyalty, originally the
allegiance of a tenant (or vassal) to his lord
3 Greek god of poetry and music
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer1
ruled as his demesne2
1 Homer, the great Greek poet, wrote two
epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, His date is placed
anywhere betweeen 1050 and 850 B.C.
2 Realm or kingdom
Yet did I never breathe its pure
A bright clear sky; clear air
Till I heard Chapman speak
out loud and
George Chapman (1559-1634) was a poet and playwright.
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781 by F.W.
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Range of sight or knowledge
Or like stout1 Cortez2
when with eagle eyes
1 Strong, brave, bold (not, in this
2 Balboa, not Cortez, discovered the Pacific
He stared at the Pacific--and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise
Guess or conjecture
Silent upon a peak in Darien.
The Darien mountain range runs the length of the
Isthmus of Darien, now called Panama.
As a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, "On
First Looking into Chapman's
Homer" falls into two parts--an octet (eight lines) and a
sestet (six lines). The octet describes Keats's reading
experience before reading Chapman's translation and the sestet
contrasts his experience of reading it.
The octet stresses Keats's wide reading
experience; for example he says "MUCH have I TRAVELED," meaning that he
has read a great deal. What other words/phrases in the octet also
indicate his extensive traveling (reading) experience? Note he has
traveled both on land and sea.
|Much have I traveled in
the realms of gold
"realms of gold" functions in a number of ways. "Realms" starts the
image cluster of locations--"states," "kingdoms" "demesnes." These
words, as well as "in fealty," suggest political organization. The
phrase also symbolizes the world of literature or, if you prefer,
imagination. What is Keats saying about the value of this world., i.e.,
why describe it as realms of gold, rather than of lead or brass, for
instance? Why does he use the plural "realmS," rather than the singular
Finally, "realms of gold" anticipates the
references in the sestet to the Spanish Conquistadores in the New
World, for whom the lust for gold was a primary motive.
The repetition of "l" sounds in "travelled," "realms,"
and "gold" emphasizes the idea and ties the words
many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
|Which bards in
fealty to Apollo hold.
The high, even holy function that
poets fulfill is indicated by their being the servants of a god,
Apollo, and having sworn to follow him (with the suggestion of
their having consecrated their lives to him). "Fealty," in
addition, indicates their dedication to Apollo and, by extension,
to their calling, the writing of poetry.
With the reference to poets, Keats moves from those
who read (or who experience through poets' imaginations) to those
who create poetry (or who express their own imaginations). Then
the poem narrows to one particular poet who rules the realm of
poetry, i.e., whose genius and inspired poetry raise him above even
|Oft of one wide
expanse had I been told
To emphasize the extent of
Homer's genius and his literary accomplishments, Keats modifies
"expanse" (which means "extensive") with an adjective which also
means "extensive," i.e., the adjective
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
refers to Homer's intellect. (We use the adjective "deep" colloquially
a similar meaning today, in such phrases as "a deep thought" or
"she's a deep thinker.")
did I never breathe its pure serene
By breathing in the "pure
serene," he makes it a part of himself; would the same effect be
achieved if he walked or ran through Homer's demesne (his poetry)? What
is Keats saying about the necessity of poetry (how important
This line and the next line
contrast Keats's knowledge of Homer's reputation and his
experiencing the genius of Homer's poetry in Chapman's translation.
What are your assocations with the words "pure" and "serene"--
positive, negative, neutral? Note that these words apply to both
the poetry of Homer and the translation by
|Till I heard
Chapman speak out loud and bold;
|Then felt I like
some watcher of the skies
"Then" moves the poem to a
new idea, to the consequences or the results of reading Chapman's
translation. At the
same time, "then" connects the sestet to the octet and so provides
a smooth transition from one section of the poem to the other. In
this line and the next line, reading Chapman's translation has
revealed a new dimension or world to Keats, which he expresses by
extending the world to include the heavens.
When a new planet swims into his ken;
To get a sense of Keats'
excitement and joy at the discovery of Homer via Chapman, imagine
the moment of looking up into the sky and seeing a planet--which
has been unknown till that moment. Also imagine the moment of
struggling up a mountain, reaching the top and beholding--not land,
as you expected--but an expanse of ocean, reaching to the horizon
and beyond. What would that moment of discovery, that moment of
revelation of a new world, that moment of enlarging the world you
knew, feel like?
The planet "swims" into view. Though the
astronomer is actively looking (as Keats actively read), yet the
planet, which has always been there, comes into his view. The
image of swimming is part of the water imagery, starting with the
voyages of line 3 to the Pacific Ocean in the
|Or like stout
Cortez when with eagle eyes
Since the discovery of the
Pacific is a visual experience, Keats emphasizes Cortez's eyes. What
kind of eyesight does an eagle have (is it different from that
of an owl or a bat, for instance)?
stared at the Pacific--and all his men
Why does Cortez "stare," rather
than just look at or glance at the Pacific? Does Keats's error in
identifying Cortez as discovering the ocean detract significantly
from this poem?
|Look'd at each
other with a wild surmise--
What is the impact of this
discovery on Cortez's men? Why are they silent? Why do they look
at each other with "WILD surmise"? What does the adjective "wild"
suggest about their feelings on seeing the Pacific, about the
impact of that discovery on them?
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
The image of Cortez and his men
standing overwhelmed is sharply presented. Note the contrast of
Chapman's "loud and bold voice" in the last line of the octet and
the "silence" of Cortez and his men in the last line of the poem.