On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer


The dominant images are those of travel and discovery: ‘states and kingdoms’, ‘islands’, ‘new planet’, ‘the Pacific’. Keats presents himself as one of the explorers of the past, giving his explorations in the realms of literature a similar sense of adventure and heroism.

The image of explorers confronted with a hitherto unknown natural phenomenon is particularly powerful. The poem’s final image of Cortez frozen into awestruck silence at the sight of the Pacific Ocean’s vastness is vividly dramatic – especially when contrasted by his men’s ‘wild surmise’ as they try to guess what can have elicited such a response from their ‘stout’ leader.

Keats’ school reading is evident in his reference to the ‘new planet’ in l. 10. The words echo the vivid description of Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus in John Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Astronomy given to Keats as a school prize in 1811.


The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were characterised by a quest not only to discover, but to claim and colonise, the riches of new-found lands. Explorers were as much driven by the promise of vast wealth (for example, seeking the fabled land of El Dorado, the golden city and kingdom of the Golden King) as by the excitement of discovery. Though we have a more ambivalent attitude towards this today, in Keats’ era, the consequent wealth of the British Empire from its colonies was a source of pride.

Thus Keats can use the image of explorers appropriating wealth as a positive metaphor for the riches he has taken from reading Chapman’s translation of Homer. He already describes his previous reading as travelling in ‘realms of gold’: now he is appropriating what had thus far been Homer’s ‘demesne’, just as Cortez (clearly regarded positively in this sonnet) took over the kingdom of the Aztecs and seized Mexico for Spain.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer...

  • Why should the image of explorers discovering a mighty ocean be appropriate in a poem about literary discovery?
  • Keats does not make explicit the feelings experienced by the astronomer discovering a new planet – but how does Keats language suggest his degree of excitement?
  • Look at the order of the details Keats provides about Cortez. How does the structure of the image contribute to its effect?

Themes in On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

Responding to literary art

The sonnet is a response to the imaginative power and vision of both Homer, the ancient Greek epic poet, and George Chapman, the Elizabethan poet, who translated Homer into English. The most widely read version of Homer available to readers of Keats’ day had to that point been the one by Alexander Pope, an eighteenth century poet whose rhyming couplet translation, whilst being rational, orderly and controlled, lacked the raw power of the original Greek. When Keats writes about Chapman’s translation as ‘speak[ing] out loud and bold’, he is making a clear distinction between the more muscular style of the Chapman and the elegantly balanced and controlled version of Pope.

Keats claiming his poetic vocation

Poetry is here seen as an empire of the mind, something which sets free the imagination and which is, in fact, an imaginative conquest. The poem marks a turning-point in Keats’ development. The full power of the god Apollo has been revealed to him and there can be no doubt that Keats has found his literary vocation. He has discovered not only Chapman’s Homer but also his true poetic self.

This is all the more powerful when we understand Keats’ humble background. Andrew Motion (Keats, 1997) suggests that the poem is ‘about exclusion as well as inclusion. Its title suggests that Keats had come late to high culture (it is On First Looking). It draws attention to the fact that he could not read Homer in the original Greek. It mistakes Balboa…for Cortez, and so undermines its air of learning.’ For Keats, properly comprehending classical culture and the power of literature was a personal conquest.

Investigating themes in On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer...

  • In what ways in this sonnet a form of poetic manifesto for Keats?
  • Andrew Motion calls attention to negative aspects of the sonnet. Do you agree with what he says?
  • ‘Poetry is here seen as an empire of the mind, something which sets free the imagination and which is, in fact, an imaginative conquest.’ Do you agree that this is a major theme of the poem?
    • Explain your reasons.
  • Do you agree that the excitement conveyed by the poem is not simply that of discovering an inspiring text but also of Keats discovering his own poetic potential?
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