Notes on John Keats

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Glossary:
George Chapman was an Elizabethan poet and translator.
goodly: ample, considerable, substantial, fine
bards: poets, esp. lyric poets
fealty: fidelity or obligation to lord, faithfulness
Apollo: the sun god in the Ancient Greek pantheon
expanse: a wide, uninterrupted space
demesne: one's estate, possessed land
serene: calm, tranquil
ken: view, range of sight
Cortez: Spanish conquistador (note: Keats gets his facts wrong here. Balboa was actually the first conquistador to view the Pacific ocean)
surmise: guess, conjecture
Darien: former name of the isthmus of Panama

Commentary: Keats is here using the metaphor of travelling, voyaging, and discovery to convey the wonders of reading literature. In the first four lines, his persona brags of the lands he has travelled to,but he has been precluded from Homer's turf, only hearing of it secondhand. Until Chapman's translation, that is, which spoke "loud and bold", effectively channeling Homer's greatness into the English language. The effect is amazing: Keats's persona feels "like some watcher of the skies" an astronomer discovering a new planet, or like a conquistador seeing the expansive Pacific ocean with his men for the first time. They are wild eyed, silent, perhaps even stunned. Compare this poem to Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer". Note that for Whitman, a direct mystical union with nature is achieved, whereas in the Keats poem, the astronomical imagery carries metaphoric weight to convey the experience of being opened to a new literary world.

Formal properties: the poem is an Italian sonnet (octet and sestet) with the rhyme scheme abbaabba cdcdcd.