On First Looking into Chapman's Homer
People say, “We are the best educated generation in the history of the world!” Well, we certainly are the most indebted to colleges and universities. I don’t mean that we owe them a lot of gratitude for opening up to us the life of the mind, and the best that has been thought and written and wrought and done. They’re not much in that cultural and human business anymore, sad to say. I mean it literally. We owe them a lot of money. Where’s Karl Marx where you need him? Sipping sherry with his buddies in the faculty lounge, and scowling if a lowly student should happen to pass by.
Imagine, though, that you really are hungry for knowledge and the experience of artistic excellence. Your name is John Keats. You’re solidly out of the middle class, in training to be a physician, but really your heart is in poetry. But you haven’t had a prep school education, which means that you can’t read Latin or Greek, so you must rely on translators if you are going to sail to those far islands of the imagination. And then you come upon, for the first time, a translation of Homer — of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It wasn’t even a current translation that Keats found. It was George Chapman’s muscular but by then old-fashioned translation, done more than 200 years before, in the time of Shakespeare. Yet for Keats, even that was a magnificent discovery.
Artists often like to think about the nature of what they do, because it’s quite a human thing, really a kind of manifestation of our being made in the image of God. Keats thought about it and wrote about it all the time. We don’t create as God does, out of nothing, but from the world around us, and from the world within our minds and affections and imagination, we fashion other worlds, and even if we are not artists, we love to enter those worlds that other people have made. It’s a terrible shame that in our time, art is reduced to politics, and that the teaching of poetry in school, if poetry is taught at all, is made subordinate to some political aim. What it means is that the very soul of poetry is torn away, and what you have left is a kind of Frankenstein monster, a thing that looks human but isn’t. Meanwhile, the lands of the imagination are abandoned. Men of old used to travel the high seas to search for lands unknown. We do the reverse. We rub those lands right out of the map, staying in our little cells of whatever current political fad or madness seizes us.
But again, imagine that you are a passionate young man of high ideals, the young John Keats, reading all the fine poetry he can find — Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton — and then, finally, the great western forefather of them all, Homer. What would that be like? Keats himself tells us in this celebrated sonnet. What happened later adds to it an almost unbearable poignancy, for Keats was still young and still learning, when tuberculosis took him away at the age of 26. If you go to Rome, you may visit the Protestant cemetery where he is buried, with this epitaph on his headstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Much have I traveled 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-browed 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 stared at the Pacific—and all his men Looked at each other with a wild surmise— Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
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