On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer Study Guide

If you've ever read a book whose plot features action and adventure, it's easy to feel like you're in the story. As the hero battles enemies and defeats monsters, you may feel like you're by his side, wielding a sword, traveling the world with him as a trusted partner-in-crime. This is how John Keats felt when he first stumbled upon Homer's epic poems The Illiad and The Odyssey. The trials and tribulations of the poem's hero, Odysseus, who leaves his home in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan war, seduced the young poet with the promise of treasure and mystery waiting for him in every corner of Homer's universe.

"On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" (1816), one of John Keats' earliest sonnets, describes the revelation the poet had upon reading George Chapman's translation of Homer's epics, The Illiad and The Odyssey. Homer's epics were originally composed in Greek—but Keats couldn't read Greek. Then, one night, Keats read Chapman's Homer with his friend Charles Clowden Clarke, who introduced him to the translation. Before discovering Chapman's work, Keats had only encountered Homer's epics in Latin or in Alexander Pope's popular English translations.

From the poem's first lines, it's clear that these past readings left an impression on Keats: the "realms of gold" and the "many goodly states and kingdoms" he visited through verse had enforced Homer's sovereignty as classical literature's great bard, an essential figure on any young poet's radar. However, something about Chapman's translation opened the poet's eyes anew: Homer's universe, reinvigorated by Chapman's voice, appeared new and unexplored, ready and waiting for the young poet to set foot on its shores.

As well as being a literary translator, Chapman, who lived almost two centuries before Keats, was known as a playwright and poet. His work garnered praise from Percy Shelley, a first-generation Romantic poet who also influenced Keats, and he was closely associated with fellow Elizabethean-era dramatist Ben Jonson.

"On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" is a Petrarchan-style sonnet, which means the poem's fourteen lines can be divided into two parts, an octave and a sestet, with a volta, or a turn of thought, occurring in line 9. While formal elements like rhyme and meter are essential features of sonnets composed during Keats' era, it is this sudden change that occurs in the poem's volta that is the sonnet's most important feature. This genre especially suits the poem's subject matter: ultimately, Keats' sonnet is about the profound change in the speaker's vision of Homer's epic universe after reading Chapman's translations, and the renewed sense of wonder he feels at a world he was certain he knew by heart.