Decoding Poetry · writing

John Keats in a Homer State of Mind


Never have I wanted to go to New York until I heard India Carney’s rendition of “New York State of Mind”  on The Voice. She cradled the words and nurtured it like a smooth well made blanket; her voice and how she sang the notes gave me a picture of packing my bags and taking the greyhound and going through Harlem…

John Keats felt a similar way when he read George Chapman’s Homer.

How did I come up with this conclusion?

Here is Keat’s Italian Sonnet titled “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

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         5

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;       10

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.

(Poem found in David Madden;s Pocketful of Poems: Vintage Verse)

Decode Part One: What is Keats Talking About?

Okay, first things first. After a first reading for enjoyment I usually decode a poem focusing on subject matter, tone and speaker.

The main idea seems to be a praise of Chapman’s translations of Homer’s works. We are unsure about who Chapman is at this point, but you kind of get the feeling that Keats is feelin’ his writings. The tone is one of awe and understanding, like an “aha moment. For instance when Keats say in lines 7-8, “Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.”

And finally, just who is the speaker of this poem? One lesson I learned while taking creative writing courses at the university is to never assume the speaker is the poet himself/herself.

I think I disobeyed that rule while reading this because I imagined Keats poring over the Odyssey and the Iliad, re-reading Chapman’s notes and smiling with glee.

Decode Part 2: Poetic Devices Used- end-stopped lines, metrical verse, and enjambed lines.

If you have already read Keat’s poem or if you have read it just now, then forgive me if the devices I point it does not match yours. That is the beauty of decoding poetry- it is objective on a subjective level.

Anyway, some devices Keat’s used in this sonnet are end-stopped lines, metrical verse, and enjambed lines.

Example of end-stopped line: “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;” lines 1-2

Example of Metrical Verse: Entire poem is an Italian sonnetread more Italian sonnets

Example of enjambed line:Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific- and all his men…” lines 11-12

What all these lines seem to do is cause us to take pause and move on, like a translator would do. Keats uses punctuation and the metrical verse to kind of mimic a breathless awe.

Decode Part 3: And Now for the Two Strange Verses:

“Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” Line 8.

How could Keats have “heard” Chapman if Chapman died 161 years before Keats was even born?

Answer: Maybe Chapman was just that good of a translator, or rather it is just a play on words like if I read someone text and respond, “I heard ya”

And on a historical note it is believed that it was not Cortez who first spotted the Pacific Ocean but Vasco de Balboa.

Who would have thought? Brilliant poem anyway.

Keep poeming, fellow readers and writers!

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