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Friday, January 14, 2011

Number 37: John Keats " On First Looking into Chapman's 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-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 Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

--John Keats

Hap Notes: First of all, the picture of Keats (1795-1821) on the right is a 'lifemask' taken from Keats while he was very much alive in 1816- it's not one of those freaky death masks like they did of Washington or John Dillinger (there are two people who rarely occupy a sentence together!)

Keats, one of the most famous of the English Romantic poets, is talking about reading a translation of Homer by George Chapman (1559-1634). Chapman paraphrased much of the difficult dactylic hexameter of the original Greek into a more earthy and understandable English iambic pentameter or hexameter. There is nothing quite like reading a translation that reaches your heart and that's what Keats is so excited about. Keats knew Latin, most English school kids did, but not Greek. Keats had read other translations of Homer before (Pope's and Dryden's certainly). The Chapman translation was a revelation to him.

Keats' friend and teacher, Charles Cowden Clarke, gave Keats the Chapman translation and they stayed up all night reading it. Keats kept stopping in the middle of the reading to exclaim with excitement over some new passage that enchanted him. That morning, Clarke found this sonnet on the breakfast table. Keats had whipped out this (arguably) most famous of all Petrarchan sonnets in a couple of hours. (This made me exclaim aloud when I read this story!) I have no idea whether they are reading the Iliad, the Odyssey or both (Chapman translated both of them- I like to think they read both of them in one fevered sitting.)

Just imagine them staying up all night by firelight and candle-light reading this work. Have you ever read by candle-light deep into the night? There's a certain magic in it. (and a certain strain- it involves close reading.)

Keats is so excited by the translation that he mixes things up a bit. It was Balboa who "discovered" the Pacific ocean and was the first European to set eyes on it. Cortez actually first saw the Valley of Mexico from a peak in Panama in the province of Darien. Keats had been reading William Robertson's History of America and mixed up the two stories. He was going from memory and excited and tired and he came up with this brilliant poem so let's cut him a bit of historical slack here. Most of us could not write anything half so wonderful with Google and all 13 volumes of the Oxford English dictionary at our command. The point is, imagine what it was like to come over a peak of a mountain and see the vast, gorgeous expanse of the Pacific ocean for the first time- how heart-breakingly awestruck you would be.

The "new planet" he's talking about is probably Uranus which was discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1781, important in the poem because it was not known to the ancients from the Greek isles he talks about earlier in the poem. So it's another "new" world, like the Cortez reference.

The octave (first eight lines) talks about the Greek isles and Homer, describing Homer's "territory", more or less. Homer is "deep browed" because he is thought to be brilliant and also sculptors always depict him with a brow wrinkled in thought. The sestet (last six lines) are what is called a "volta", a change as the poet now talks about the new worlds of discovery. Keats says he feels like he just discovered a "new world" with Chapman's translation.

The problem with all works that are translated is that you cannot read the words in the language yourself so you are counting on someone else with knowledge of the language to do so for you. Not everyone's translations will get the "feel" of the work- we are counting on another person to interpret each word for us, they are the filter the words are going through. When Faegle's translation of the Aeneid came out in 2006, everyone was aflutter, even now with a work written in the first century! (I liked it but I'm partial to the Fitzgerald version and the Browning version. Rolfe Humphries is good too. But the bits and pieces I've read of C.S. Lewis's version made me swoon.) My point is (yeah, I have one besides showing off how many translations of the Aeneid I've read (7)- I got obssessive) is that a good translation of a familiar work is like a bolt of divine lightning striking you. That's what Keats is so keyed up about.

I suppose I'm explaining it to death, here, since Keats' last four lines are elegantly perfect in their description.

Keats, by the by, was not a well-known poet during his short life. He trained to be a doctor, gave it up after he'd been fully trained in pharmacy and devoted his life, instead, to poetry. We'll surely do more Keats in the course of this year.

Here's a good Keats quote: "If poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all."

You can find more Keats here:

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