Audio

Fact-Checking John Keats

August 26, 2009

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from the Poetry Foundation, August 26, 2009. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Fact Checking John Keats. Normally on this program, we listen to contemporary American poetry, but today we’re crossing the Atlantic and going back nearly two centuries to John Keats. Keats, of course, was the Romantic English poet who died young at age 25 after writing some of the most celebrated poems in the language. We’re going to listen to just one of them, the sonnet called “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” which has a long history of controversy behind it. I’m joined on the phone by Charles Rzepka, a Professor of English at Boston University. Hi Chuck.


Charles Rzepka: Hi, how are you Curtis?

 

Curtis Fox: Good. So, we’re going to get to the controversy over this poem in a moment, but first I was hoping you would set the scene for us. When and why did John Keats write this very peculiar sonnet, which I guess essentially is a rave review of George Chapman’s Elizabethan translation of Homer’s Odyssey. It’s a very strange subject for a poem.

 

Charles Rzepka: It is, and it also has some very strange imagery and governing metaphors, throwing on the Spanish conquest of America, for instance. He wrote it in September of 1816. He had just returned to London from Kent. Previous to that, he had taken his medical examination to become an apothecary. He was a very good student of medicine, but he just lost interest and became a very enthusiastic student of poetry. He returned to London about a month after an old school friend of his had settled there, named Charles Calvin Clark. The two of them decided to get together, and the occasion was that Clark had come into possession of a huge folio volume of a translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by the Renaissance poet George Chapman. So Keats went over to Clark’s house one evening, their first meeting since their school days, and read through what Clark called some of the “famousest” passages that they knew, from reading Pope’s translation. Keats was so overwhelmed by his first experience of Chapman’s Homer that when he went back home that night, he stayed up late into the early hours and wrote the sonnet “First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” and sent it to Clark at dawn and there it was at breakfast. The beginning of Keat’s decision not to pursue medicine, and his decision to commit himself entirely to becoming a poet rather than a doctor.

 

Curtis Fox: So let’s hear the poem. Here’s Michael Stuhlbarg, reading “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats.

 

Michael Stuhlbarg:

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.

 

Curtis Fox: That was Michael Stuhlbarg reading “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”. So Chuck, I guess it’s fair to say that Keats really, really, really liked Chapman’s Homer.

 

Charles Rzepka: Oh he did, and he wasn’t alone. This was a period in which Renaissance poets like Chapman were being rescued and dusted off and kind of celebrated again.

 

Curtis Fox: Many commentators have pointed out what appears to be a factual error in the poem. It’s in these final six lines.

 

Michael Stuhlbarg: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken;


Curtis Fox: Nothing wrong there, but here it comes.

 

Michael Stuhlbarg: 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.

 

Curtis Fox: The supposed error is that Cortez, the conquistador in Mexico, was never in Darien, which is in Panama. So Keats may have confused Cortez with Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who crossed the Isthmus of Panama and was the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from the New World. I know you don’t think that’s an error, and we’re going to get to that in a second, but who first pointed this out as an error?

 

Charles Rzepka: Well this wasn’t pointed out until 1861, the poem was first published in December of 1816, so we’ve got like half a century there.

 

Curtis Fox: And no fact checking, nobody said this can’t be right.

 

Charles Rzepka: No, and he had very knowledgeable friends. Not a word for decades and decades, until Tennyson puts this little footnote saying “History here requires Balboa, AT” (for Alfred Tennyson). And then everyone just piled on. It’s amazing how many people take this as gospel, based on this little footnote of Tennyson.

 

Curtis Fox: And you think Tennyson was maybe a little jealous of Keats’ talent.

 

Charles Rzepka: Well he admired Keats a tremendous amount, you can see the influence there quite clearly. But he also tended to bristle when people would point this out. And if there’s one thing Tennyson prided himself on particularly it was historical savvy and care with historical fact. I just wonder if, this is pure speculation on my part, but I just wonder if this one point where Tennyson said, Aha! Maybe Keats was a better poet, but I’m a better historian.

 

Curtis Fox: I got my facts straight.

 

Charles Rzepka: I got my facts straight.

 

Curtis Fox: But he does have a case, because Cortez never was in Panama to the best of everybody’s knowledge. So what’s wrong with assuming that he did make a mistake, and so what?

 

Charles Rzepka: Well for one thing, if you look at any of the sources available to Keats at the time, it’s very ambiguous, the question of whether or not Cortez stood on a peak in Darien himself.

 

Curtis Fox: So based on his sources, Keats probably go his facts right.

 

Charles Rzepka: Yeah. The other thing is that from a formal point of view, the poem demands that we read Cortez rather than Balboa because the poem is a poem about belatedness. It’s about coming late to the discovery of Homer. It’s about the mediation of an original experience by someone else. The original poem by the way, the line …

 

Michael Stuhlbarg: Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

 

Charles Rzepka: … was originally “Yet never did I know what men could mean”. So I’ve heard of this experience, but it wasn’t until I read Chapman, or if you will, stood in the place of Chapman, that I understood what that first original discovery could mean. So the poem is all about belatedness, and it wouldn’t make sense from that point of view to say then I felt like Balboa, like someone who could read Greek like Chapman himself. The figure of Cortez is there as a figure, a focal point for the sense of belatedness, of having heard but now understanding what that original experience, that immediate experience would be.

 

Curtis Fox: If you’re reading this as correct, Keats is assuming an awful lot of historical knowledge from his readers.


Charles Rzepka: Well remember, his original reader is Charles Calvin Clark, so we have to ask ourselves what was his level of historical knowledge? It was extremely good, at least as good if not better as Keats himself.

 

Curtis Fox: What do you make of the lines that say “Cortez, with eagle eyes, he stared at the Pacific”

 

Michael Stuhlbarg: and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

 

Curtis Fox: Cortez seems to know what he’s looking at, and his men are baffled. How does that play into this idea of seeing Homer for the first time.

 

Charles Rzepka: Well I think one thing we have to ask ourselves is what are the men wildly surmising about? Are they asking themselves, what the hell is this thing we’re looking at? What’s this body of water here?

 

Curtis Fox: That’s the way I read it.

 

Charles Rzepka: Well another way of reading it, they’re surmising, they’re asking themselves, what’s with Cortez? Why is he standing there and staring? In other words, what kind of experience is he having that we don’t understand. The disjunction being underlined here, the disjunction between a figure capable of being moved by the sublime. Most people are oblivious to that. I think his men are, you can imagine, they’re tired. Why are we stopping here and staring? So I think that’s another way of making sense of the wild surmise line.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah, that would make sense. If Keats is putting himself in Cortez’s shoe as a reader of Chapman’s Homer, the rest of us are going to wonder why is he so mesmerized by this one book of poetry, and we’re going to be the men that look at him with wild surmise, right?

 

Charles Rzepka: And another way of reading that is, Keats saying I was once there, I was once one of those men. Now I understand, and you reader will understand if you pay attention to how I’m describing this feeling. Look at the metaphors he introduces to convey to us that sense of wonder, sublimity and awe …

 

Michael Stuhlbarg: 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.

 

Charles Rzepka: If you think of Keats wandering those Western Isles, they’re all held in fealty to Apollo, who, if we look at analogies here, he’s the King of Spain. So all poets hold their little domains, their little territories, their islands of expertise as the delicates of or viceroys of Apollo, the emperor of all poets.

 

Michael Stuhlbarg: Oft of one wide expanse had I been told / That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;

 

Charles Rzepka: But there’s one major player here, there’s one major viceroy who holds the entire Pacific Ocean as it were, and that’s Homer. I think Keats is saying, I’m looking for some place to conquer and call my own, much in the way Cortez was looking for territories to conquer.

 

Curtis Fox: Let’s hear the poem one more time with you reading in mind.

 

Michael Stuhlbarg:

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.

 

Charles Rzepka: One of the things that struck me most forcibly about the whole Cortez Balboa controversy, is how quick people are to assume that Keats was an ignorant baffoon, that he didn’t know anything about history when he probably knew more about the Spanish American conquest than any other poet of his generation, or any other famous poet.

 

Curtis Fox: So why did the reading that Keats made a big error become conventional after Tennyson? Did everyone just enjoy what one critic called the best known boner in English poetry? Did they just like that Keats blew it?

 

Charles Rzepka:(LAUGHING) Yeah, I think so. There’s one editor I think who said, Keats’ error, I don’t know if I get this exactly right, gives us the luxury of forgiving John Keats. I think really nails the sense of … Again, I think this is what motivates Tennyson. Like Tennyson, we feel awed, grateful and utterly crushed in subservience to a talent this enormous.


Curtis Fox: And so young, too.

 

Charles Rzepka: And so young.

 

Curtis Fox: Well deep down, I think most of us hate genius, right?

 

Charles Rzepka: t(LAUGHING) Yeah, I think so.

 

Curtis Fox: Charles Rzepka is a Professor of English at Boston University. His essay on Keats’ sonnet will be available in a collection of his essays coming out from Ashgate Press. You can read the poem and lots more Keats on our website, poetryfoundation.org, where you can also read articles, watch videos, download the Poetry Magazine Podcast and otherwise wallow in poetry to your heart’s content. We always like to hear from listeners, email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org. The music used in this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Did the young poetic genius know his history? Who cares if he didn't?

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