Keats was so moved by the power and aliveness of Chapman's translation of Homer that he wrote this sonnet--after spending all night reading Homer with a friend. The poem expresses the intensity of Keats's experience; it also reveals how passionately he cared about poetry. To communicate how profoundly the revelation of Homer's genius affected him, Keats uses imagery of exploration and discovery. In a sense, the reading experience itself becomes a Homeric voyage, both for the poet and the reader. Written in October 1816, this is the first entirely successful (surviving) poem he wrote. John Middleton Murry called it "one of the finest sonnets in the English language." Definitions and Allusions
The lines of the sonnet appear in the left column; those lines are explained in the right column. Words in purple are explained in the right column. Lines of the PoemExplanation of Lines
Much have I travelled in therealms of goldThis phrase can be read in two closely related ways, (1) as the world of imagination and/or (2) as the world of poetry. The difference in meaning between these two readings is a matter of emphasis, because poetry is produced by the imagination. And many goodlystates and kingdoms seen;Having a pleasing appearance or character; large or extensive Round many western islands have I beenThis line suggests the voyages of Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey. Which bards1 in fealty2 to Apollo3hold.1 A professional poet who composed and sang songs about heroes 2 Devoted fidelity or loyalty, originally the allegiance of a tenant (or vassal) to his lord 3 Greek god of poetry and music
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browedHomer1 ruled as hisdemesne21 Homer, the great Greek poet, wrote two epics, The Iliad andThe Odyssey, His date is placed anywhere betweeen 1050 and 850 B.C. 2 Realm or kingdom
Yet did I never breathe its pure sereneA bright clear sky; clear air Till I heard Chapmanspeak out loud and bold:George Chapman (1559-1634) was a poet and playwright. Then felt I like some watcher of the skiesThe planet Uranus was discovered in 1781 by F.W. Herschel. When a new planet swims into his ken;Range of sight or knowledge Or like stout1 Cortez2when with eagle eyes1 Strong, brave, bold (not, in this context, fat!) 2 Balboa, not Cortez, discovered the Pacific Ocean.
He stared at the Pacific--and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmiseGuess or conjecture Silent upon a peak inDarien.The Darien mountain range runs the length of the Isthmus of Darien, now called Panama.
As a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" falls into two parts--an octet (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The octet describes Keats's reading experience before reading Chapman's translation and the sestet contrasts his experience of reading it. The octet stresses Keats's wide reading experience; for example he says "MUCH have I TRAVELED," meaning that he has read a great deal. What other words/phrases in the octet also indicate his extensive traveling (reading) experience? Note he has traveled both on land and sea. The Octet (lines 1-8)
Much have I traveled in the realms of gold
The phrase "realms of gold" functions in a number of ways. "Realms" starts the image cluster of locations--"states," "kingdoms" "demesnes." These words, as well as "in fealty," suggest political organization. The phrase also symbolizes the world of literature or, if you prefer, imagination. What is Keats saying about the value of this world., i.e., why describe it as realms of gold, rather than of lead or brass, for instance? Why does he use the plural "realmS," rather than the singular "realm"? Finally, "realms of gold" anticipates the references in the sestet to the Spanish Conquistadores in the New World, for whom the lust for gold was a primary motive. The repetition of "l" sounds in "travelled," "realms," and "gold"...