The Homeric Challenge: On Keats’ "On first looking into Chapman’s Homer"

On first looking into Chapman’s Homer
John Keats

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.

Comment:

The title implies that merely seeing – “looking” – can be of enormous significance.

We are probably prudent to take “realms of gold” and “goodly states and kingdoms” as literally as possible. Let’s say, for just a moment, that he has traveled in wealthy areas, and stopped by or seen from a distance well-administered political orders.

From the actual material happiness that can be procured by wealth, he has moved to a slightly more abstract happiness – that of being ruled well. This happiness is pretty much only seen, though. Even though a traveler can enjoy the riches of his hosts, he cannot partake fully of the joys of having good laws.

When he brings up “islands,” he does not ever say he stopped at any of the other islands. “Round” could mean that yes, he stopped at them, but it could also mean that he merely went around them. Even less than “seeing” is just being told that there are places one is going past, that one only glances at, that are ruled by “bards in fealty to Apollo.”

Our narrator is a wanderer. He has moved past being comforted by wealth, by power exercised responsibly, and by a culture uniting a people such that it is almost divine. Poetry inspired by the gods may be a divine Revelation to a people that if they internalize, they live perfectly, as if there were no law necessary.

For some reason, none of these things appeal to our narrator. What does he see as faulty in each of them?

The word “see” is used explicitly with his mention of “goodly states and kingdoms.” It is as if a poet who wishes to create a perfect people through his poetry is obvious. If a poet can’t get a grip on the hearts of a people such that he makes them perfect in their own little place, maybe he can exhort them to rule of the noble, or building up their wealth for their own comfort and a legacy.

It is a too explicit link between poetry and the political that our narrator does not like.

He is chasing the truth of a rumor down, that there is a realm ruled by someone thoughtful, “deep-brow’d.” Such a realm has a “pure serene:” not peace through comfort or good order, but by something invisible.

Loud and bold something is uttered, this realm is uttered: the act of speaking is what proves the truth of the rumor. Our wanderer becomes in that moment an explorer.

The heavens and the ocean – places where divinity resides – at that point become the domain of the narrator.

And our wanderer turned explorer has become a leader in the final image. Not only has he been raised by the discovery of Homer, but he has brought others to that discovery, and they are stunned, awed.

Some poetry tells you what is divine exactly, and such poetry is of the realm of the imagination.

Homer puts aside the divine for the question of freedom. His pure serene is liberation, as it is the realm of the imagination. To see into the yonder is not to possess: as I was discussing with Josh, “voir” versus “avoir,” if we take “a” to be an alpha-privative of a sort. Politics is about possession, and poetry that aims to be political is material at base. Poetry that aims to discover is a world unexplored, always, where the reader is freed from earthly concerns and free to discover the divine anew.

1 Comment

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