On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

On First Looking into Chapman's Home manuscriptThis is the first of Keats’ poems in which emotion is fully controlled and sustained throughout the verse – so it is even more remarkable that Keats wrote this poem so quickly, making only one alteration (‘low brow’d Homer’ became ‘deep brow’d’). The diction is expertly handled. The sense of openness to a vast sea of wonder is suggested by long vowels: ‘wild’, ‘surmise’, ‘silent’, the sense of wondering tapering off into the unstressed syllables of the poem’s final word ‘Darien’.

Keats packs so much meaning and effect into a series of emphatic monosyllables, with hard consonants and long, resonant vowels, many of which gain extra emphasis by being placed as rhyme words: ‘gold’, ‘told’, ‘deep-brow’d’, ‘loud and bold’.

Investigating lnguage and tone of On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer...

  • By what linguistic means does Keats convey the energy and excitement of literary discovery in this sonnet?
  • What is the effect of the patterns of plosives and hard consonants in the sestet?
    • How does this influence the pace of reading?
  • Find some examples of how Keats uses diction to create a powerful contrast between calm stillness and agitated movement
  • One of the most memorable features of this sonnet is the way in which Keats suggests the awe experienced at the moment of discovery. By what means does Keats create this feeling?

Structure and versification of On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet and Keats uses its structure as an integral part of its meaning. As common in Petrarchan sonnets, its rhyme scheme is a b b a a b b a in the octave and c d e c d e in the sestet.

The octave is dominated by the theme of exploration and the metaphor or poet as literary adventurer. The sestet then develops the theme of discovery, with the use of similes through which Keats conveys his sense of wonder.

The poem progresses from a steady opening (‘much .. And .. Round .. Oft’) via the turning point of encounter (‘Yet .. Til .. Then’) to a breathless climax which dramatically captures the sense of wonder of the explorer.

Notice how the placing of ‘silent’ at the beginning of the final line, coming after the momentary pause (indicated by the dash) of the line-division, gives the awestruck tone of the final line even more emphasis.

Investigating structure and versification of On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer...

  • Explain how the octave/sestet structure of the sonnet is an integral part of its meaning.
  • Explain how the poem moves from a steady start to ‘a breathless climax’.
  • What is the effect of enjambement between lines 11 and 13?
  • What is the effect of the single word ‘Silent’ at the beginning of line 14 and the pause which follows it?
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