Poem – John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

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.

– John Keats
(1795–1821)

Being in the middle of teaching a poetry course, I’m spending quite a bit of time with poems that talk to, or about, other poems. It’s a funny sub-genre; not quite Ars Poetica, but not quite not. Having recently discovered Christopher Logue’s amazing War Music (will rave immoderately about it in another post), this lovely early(ish) Keats poem feels just right. It’s such as simple piece, but sits beautifully on the tongue. Read that penultimate line out loud and you can feel your own mouth assuming an expression of wonderment, and then the last line closes everything softly, and leaves you stilled. Lovely lovely poem.

Another in this vein catches me exactly the same way. It’s Archibald Macleish’s “You, Andrew Marvell”. (I’ve tried to get the Poetry Foundation ‘share this’ api to work, but it refuses. This link will take you to the poem. Off you go. I’ll wait.) Again, what I love about this poem is the way it captures the feeling of reading and suddenly connecting with a poem – that almost electric charge you get. Part joy, part fear, part amazement, part comfort. I love the way everything is phrased with “and”, so that you feel as though you’ve stumbled in to a conversation that has been pouring out of him for ages, or as though he always knew you’d be there to listen, and was so carried away by enthusiasm that he couldn’t wait to begin.NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise And there’s something utterly intoxicating about ‘To feel the always coming on / The always rising of the night’ … Can’t you just feel how vast the earth suddenly becomes? Can’t you feel the planet slowly moving beneath your feet? It’s a switch of perspective that reminds me of the first time I saw the famous “earthrise over the moon” photo – that same moment of disorientation and elation.

Now, how can I work these two poems into a class?

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