I know “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a classic description of the ability of art to create emotional epiphanies in a reader, but I never realized how much Keats sounds like a kid reading his report to the class and going way overboard praising the book because he obviously hasn’t read it. Like, allegedly, Keats was so struck by George Chapman’s translation of the works of Homer that he stayed up all night reading and screaming over it:
From Lord Houghton’s edition of the Poetical Works of John Keats, we learn that the fine folio edition of Chapman’s translation of Homer had been lent to Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke, and he and Keats sat up till daylight over their new acquisition; Keats shouting with delight as some passage of especial energy struck his imagination. At ten o’clock the next morning, Mr. Clarke found this sonnet by Keats on his breakfast-table.
Which, okay, maybe happened, in the sense that anything can happen, but you read this poem and tell me if it sounds like something written by someone who has thoroughly read and absorbed Chapman’s Homer:
Much have I travelled 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;
But of one wide expanse had I been told,
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet could I never judge what men could mean,
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 a stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, — and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise,—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
This is clearly the shit you pull out to buy time when your teacher asks you what part of the book you liked the most. “Oh, uh, what do I like best about Chapman’s Homer? That’s really hard to say, because honestly the whole book reminded me of how much even though I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve never read a book as good as this one. Since time immemorial, people have wanted to know, is there a book that can make you feel like Cortez, and the answer now is yes. I would recommend this book to anyone, no matter what kind of book you’re looking for. This book made me understand all books in a new way. What I especially like was how loud and bold Chapman was. Homer may have been blind, but Chapman certainly isn’t. Yes, Chap or man, he’s all Homer. Chapman: A land of contrasts. This book was so good, I’d recommend it to anyone who likes reading, or even if you don’t. Homer? More like Go-mer. Go…read this book. If you have ever wondered how Rome was founded and whether or not Achilles was invulnerable over his whole body like everyone says, this is the book for you.”
John Keats never read a word of Chapman’s Homer. Here I stake my claim.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.