The shortest month of the year is winding down. Why not send it off with a literary flourish by introducing your students to one of the most famous poems in the English language: “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats (1795–1821). It’s our homeschool poem-of-the-week for the last week of February.
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-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I 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.
The “Chapman” of the title is George Chapman (ca. 1599–1634), an Elizabethan writer and Classical scholar, and this poem is an account of Keats’ first reading of Chapman’s English translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The story — a wonderful one to share — is that Keats was introduced to Chapman’s translation by his friend Charles Cowden Clarke (1787–1877), and the two young men stayed up all evening reading it aloud to each other. The next morning, when Clarke came down to breakfast, he found this sonnet waiting for him on the breakfast table.
“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is a perfectly crafted example of a Petrarchan sonnet: fourteen lines, thematically and structurally arranged into an initial group of eight (the octave) and a final group of six (the sestet). Encourage your students to map the rhyme scheme and see how tight it is: ABBA ABBA CD CD CD. The first eight lines tell of the writer’s prior experience in “realms of gold” — the imaginary (literary) landscape of ancient gods and kings and poets. He had been told that the greatest of the ancient poets was Homer, but it was not until he read Chapman’s translation — Keats could not read the original Greek — that he truly understood why this was so. And at that point the sonnet turns: reading Chapman was like discovering a new planet, or a new ocean he had never seen before.
There’s some wonderful vocabulary here for your students to work through in your family dictionary: realms, bards, fealty, demesne, ken, surmise. The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781 and the minor planet Ceres was discovered in 1801, so the discovery of new planets was very much a matter of public interest in Keats’ day. Unfortunately, Keats’ historical geography was a bit off: the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa (ca. 1475–1519) — not Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) — was the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama (Darien) and see the Pacific Ocean. But that’s OK; it’s a poem, not a history text.
There are a great many recordings of this sonnet available online. Here’s a good one that will help your students get the pronunciation (and so the rhymes) correct:
“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” has been one of the most widely read, taught, and quoted sonnets in the English language for almost two hundred years. This week, invite your young scholars to enter into that inheritance and make Keats their friend for life.
❡ Then felt I like some watcher of the skies: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship. 😊
❡ Explore more: For a quick homeschool review of the Romantic Movement in art and literature, the movement with which Keats is commonly associated, turn to page 338 in your River Houses history encyclopedia. 📚
❡ Literary lives: The website of the Poetry Foundation includes biographical notes and examples of the work of many important poets (including John Keats) that are suitable for high school students and homeschool teachers. 🖋
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Add your name to our River Houses mailing list to get posts like these delivered right to your mailbox, and print your own River Houses Poetry Calendar to follow along with us as we visit fifty of our favorite friends over the course of the year. 📖