Realms of Gold

April 5, 2012

John Keats was young, sick, and poor…and one of the great poets of the English language.  As such, he died young, and certainly did not have a gentleman’s education.  As with most of us, his knowledge of the ancient classics was by way of translation.  In his day, a new translation of Homer, by Chapman, made a big splash, and Keats was impressed by it.  (Whether that was truly his first exposure to Homer, I do not know.)  He immortalized his enthusiasm in this sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, in which he uses the metaphor of literature as territory, to be explored and appreciated.

 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-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 star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 Round many western islands have I been…
The speaker/author has read widely and travelled through the worlds of the literary imagination, including that of Greek poetry.

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene…
Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  Certainly not in its original form.

 Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
 When a new planet swims into his ken;
A beautiful evocation of the excitement of literary discovery, and the enthusiasm of the reader.  The image is founded on the notion of the scientist as a sort of poet/voyager himself, a romantic notion that dissolved in the succeeding materialist century.  Compare to Whitman’s use of the figure of the star-gazer in When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.

 Or like stout Cortez…
Cortez is not our day’s notion of a romantic hero:  history now treats him as a ruthless butcher caring for little but gold.  But even I, raised in Southern California in which the school system regaled us with ‘history units’ on the Spanish Conquistadores every semester, cannot help but respond to this image.

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
So, he confused Cortez, destroyer of the Aztec Empire, with Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.  Just where is Darien, anyway?  I think they call this poetic license.