Thoughts about "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" Keats


I have a passion for learning. Yet, I am frustrated because there are so few years in a lifetime, compared to the overwhelming, vast immeasurable ocean of accumulated knowledge (due to the written word, and oral tradition) to which we have access! If only I had time enough to master every subject. I would probably need thousands of years to do that. A great poem was recently brought to my attention. This is a poem written by Keats after he was first introduced to Homer:

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d 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-brow’d 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 Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats was introduced to Homer and the world of the ancient Greeks by Chapman’s translation of the Odyssey. He compares his realization of a vast new world, and how much he has yet to learn to Cortez’ experience after searching for a new route to China, and many “wild goose chases” later, finding himself on the edge of the Pacific, on a peak in Darien. The wild surmise and silence that follows reflects my own understanding, feeling of frustration, and sense of awe at how much further there is to go: how much I still don’t know, and how much I will never know.

(It was actually Balboa who was in charge of this expedition, that found the Pacific. Keats got the wrong explorer, but the point remains the same.)

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