Beautifully Executed, Sustained, and Controlled: One of the finest sonnets in English literature.

Beautifully Executed, Sustained, and Controlled: One of the finest sonnets in English literature.

Photo by J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash

Inearly October 1816, a good friend Cowden Clarke shared with John Keats an extraordinary antique volume circulating among London’s literati: a 1616 folio edition of the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman’s translation of Homer. This book was just over two hundred years old at the time. The book was a look into the past and a glorious achievement.

The two friends, fascinated and invigorated, pored over the text until morning. When Keats got home, he immediately composed a sonnet, “On the first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” He sent it to Clarke via messenger, and it reached him by ten that morning.

This poem was the most beautifully executed, sustained, and controlled verse that Keats had ever so far created. Never yet had his sensibilities coalesced so exquisitely as here. It was a milestone achievement that immediately cemented his stature as a poet and one that augured for a brilliant future.

Judging by the poem’s manuscript, it was composed in its entirety; there are no edits or crossed out words. It was published in The Examiner on December 1, 1816, with only the seventh line revised. It is one of the finest sonnets in English literature.

Keats composed The “Homer” sonnet in reaction to an Elizabethan and the classical source. It is a layered appreciation of Chapman’s and Homer’s muscular poetic vision. That capability, so clearly exhibited by Chapman and Homer, is judged as a lack in himself, a chasm between Keats’s perceived diminished ability, and the expansiveness of past heroic imaginations.

This conflict would become a recurring trope for Keats.

This revelation is described in powerful and direct metaphors of discovery: an astronomer and an explorer. Keats celebrates the moment of epiphany, of discovery.

These are modern metaphors of science and progress, and Keats was enamored of the engagingly romantic notion of the solitary scientific genius at work pursuing the mysterious moment of revelation.

The astronomer Sir William Herschel was such a scientist. Herschel built fantastically powerful telescopes, and he and his sister meticulously surveyed the night skies, and a planet indeed did swim into his ken. He discovered the planet Uranus in March 1781. It was the first discovery of a planet since antiquity and the first that needed the telescope, a recent invention, to see.

Photo by Mathew Schwartz on Unsplash

Here is Richard Holmes account of Keats’ incorporation of Herschel’s discovery from his fascinating book The Age of Wonder:

“The young John Keats remembered an organized game at his school in Enfield, in which all the boys whirled around the playground in a huge choreographed dance, trying to imitate the entire solar system, including all the know moons (to which Herschel had by then added considerable). Unlike Newton’s perfect brassy clockwork mechanism, this schoolboy universe — complete with straying comets — was a gloriously chaotic “human orrery.”

Keats won a copy of Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy as a senior school prize in 1811. Reading of Herschel, he enshrined the discovery of Uranus five years later in his great sonnet of 1816, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.”

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

By John Keats

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 did I never 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.

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