John Keats wrote a poem known as ‘On First looking into Chapman’s Homer’. He was an English romanticpoet of the early 19th century known mostly for the use of sensualimagery within his popular series of odes. Though initially unpopular his poemsare now some of the most critically analysed of the romantic period. ‘Keats daringand bold style earned him nothing but criticism from two of England’s morerevered publications, Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly Review’ (Keats,2018) this passage shows how popular poetry magazines at the time scorned hisfirst attempt at poetry. Sea Grapes by Derek Walcott is apoet from a completely different time.
Walcott was intrigued by English poetsof the time and was especially influenced by modernist poets such as T.S. Eliotand Ezra Pound. Walcott was born and raised in the West Indies under the West IndiesFederation, growing up during a time of de-colonisation, he began to incorporatehis feelings and emotions about colonial rule into his literary works, thisessay will aim to bridge to gap between there poetry and attempt to find commonground among centuries of difference.To begin, both employtropes and figures of speech throughout their poems, with a good example beingKeats with ‘When a new planet swims into his ken’ (Keats, 1816) – perhaps referencingthe recent discovery of Uranus in 1781. This is further reaffirmed with variouscritiques on it today ‘Critics usually say that the “new planet” to WilliamHerschel’s observation of Uranus in 1781’ (LOGAN, 2014) It is a common themewithin criticism that this is what he meant. This passage showcases his use figurativelanguage, an example being the incorporation of the word ‘swims’ as it likensthe planet to a human being, one who is journeying towards the heavens. Languagelike this intrigues the reader to read on.
Walcott providesmany examples himself of how fluent he is with the use of figures of speech,for example ‘the sail which leans on light’ (Walcott, 1816: ln. 1) suggestinghow the journey of literary knowledge, a recurring theme within this poem, isled by the classics written in Greece. With ‘light’ being the classics, withdark being what occurred after that.This is in keeping with the themes Walcott portrays throughouthis own works, as he highlights the colonial brutality towards his culture as anegative thing, suggesting that he values his culture as if it were a form of wealth.He highlights this within his other poem ‘AFar Cry from Africa’ (Walcott, 1962) in particular ‘The salients of colonialpolicy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed? To savages, expendableas Jews?’ (Walcott, 1962, p. 8-10) This passage describes the racial unrestbetween the two cultures. From this we can see both poets employ imageryeffectively to highlight what they considered the issues of the day.
Continuing,both employ the use of imagery throughout their poems. ‘Much have I travell’din the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen’ (Keats, 1816: ln.1) This idea of ‘realms of gold’ brings a vivid image to mind of a rich landfull of promise and adventure, to which is he alludes to the discovery of atthe end of the poem with ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien’ which is a hill inPanama, within the Americas.
Thisopening line is an immediate introduction to Keats’ imagery as a writingtechnique, to help the reader, see what he is describing. ‘Realms of gold’ (Keats,1816) provides a very accurate, grand image to the readers mind; helping youvisualise a rather large quantity of gold within an area. ‘Much have Itravelled’ (Keats, 1816) suggests a voyage to foreign lands, like Odysseus toTroy – In this case however he means the Americas. Central America at thispoint was a major source gold for the Spanish, as the Spanish colonies wereplentiful with the resource and as such could be described as “realms of gold.”In another link, the natives in these colonies were treated horrendously undercolonialism, something Walcott experienced first-hand. This highlights thecomparison that one of these poets developed their literary styles during theheight of colonialism in the early 19th century whilst the other developedand saw first-hand its decline around the 20th century. Keats usesthe Greek classics as examples and comparisons from which he compares his owntime to, which Walcott also does throughout his poem. Walcottwas engrossed in Greek mythology and mentions it constantly within his work, likeKeats, he used these Greek classics as a comparison to the modern times he wasliving in.
One using this to describe the discovery of the new world whilst theother describes living within this New World almost a century later. Later,Keats refers the Aegean Sea surrounding Greece with ‘Round the western islandshave I been, which bards in fealty to Apollo hold’ (Keats, 1816: ln. 3-4)Through the use of the term ‘western islands’ where Homers Odyssey would havetaken place; with the reference to the Greek god Apollo further supporting this.
He’s recounting a voyage like the one described in the Odyssey, however hisvoyage is one likened to one of literary development and understanding, shown throughhis use of the phrase ‘which bards in fealty to Apollo hold’ (Keats, 1816) bardsbeing the orators of old within Greek society. Throughoutboth Keats’ and Walcott’s’ poems the parallels of the past and present are constantlychallenged, painting a picture of the evolution of literature from the classicsinto what literature has become today, an example of this is Sea Grapes (Walcott, 1948) ‘That sail which leans on light,tired of islands,a schooner beating up the Caribbean for home, could be Odysseus,home-bound on the Aegean;that father and husband’s’ Thismeld of both the past and present in the poem creates a contrast. Schooners are16th century ships that were in use by colonial nations during thecolonial era, he tacitly contrasts this with his mentioning of ‘Odysseus, homebound on the Aegean’ in the next stanza. Odysseus being a tale from Greekmythology, on the opposite side of history.
These contrasts continue in On First looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (Keats,1816) ‘That deep-browed Homer ruled as hisdemesne;Yet did I never breathe its pure sereneTill I heard Chapman speak out loud andbold:’ With’Then felt I…’ (Keats, 1816) Keats initiates a shift in the readers emotions. Similartechniques are employed by Walcott to his advantage with ‘the classics canconsole, but not enough.’ (Walcott, 1948) both techniques being there to illicitan effective emotional response from the reader.
This is supportedfurther when later in the poem Keats suggests, that prior to reading Chapmans Homer,he could never appreciate the poem properly. ‘Yet never did I breathe its pureserene, till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold’ (Keats 1816) suggeststhis idea that reading classical poetry is a ‘serene’ experience. Walcott himself makes a similarpoint that discovery within poetry is similar to becoming special and unique,suggesting both poets had romanticised views of what a poet was in the world. ‘Thegift of poetry has made me one of the chosen.
‘ (Walcott 1948) is an example ofthis, along with ‘the classics can console, but not enough’ (Walcott, 1948) Thishowever shows that he also romanticised the classics of Greece, like Keats. Furtheron in the poem Sea Grapes the readeris stirred by Walcott to receive an intense and stressful feeling, created by thedilemma ‘brings nobody peace’ (Walcott, 1948) This makes the reader wonder why nobodyis brought peace, the dilemma is then explained with ‘the ancient war between obsessionand responsibility’ (Walcott 1948) This conflict is similar to the one Keats highlightsin his poem, it is caused by one’s responsibilities, like Odysseus stayingloyal to his wife, but only doing so by fighting the temptation of obsession,his obsession with war and temptation. The use of the dilemma keeps the readerinterested, however it is not resolved by the end of the poem.
This contrastswith Keats’ poem as that poems dilemma is not explicitly stated, it is subliminallyhidden behind the text. At the end of Keats ‘OnFirst looking into Chapman’s Homer’ the moment Cortez first see’s the Americasis described ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien, Look’d at each other with a wildsurmise’ (Keats, 1816) – The ending suggests that their obsession for adventureand wealth had led them here, where they would find their bounty. In conclusion these are two very differentpoets.
One was present through the height of colonialism whilst the otherwitnessed its decline. Walcott’s perspective of colonialism being a whollynegative thing contrasts with Keats’ neutral opinion on the matter, as he nevermentions his opinion on it throughout the poem. Keats employs the Petrarchan sonnet,with a formal rhyming pattern of a-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-d-c-d, whilst Walcott’sis a more modern approach on poetry, lacking a strict structure or pattern. Hedoes however stick to lines of three to a stanza, employing traditional metres throughouthis work. The use of tropes and figures of speech are common with both, and theyare very effective at using them, with Keats’ specialising in verbal imageryand the use of Volta’s whilst Walcott excels in dramatics and shock value,emanating from his use of a short, brutal structure. All in all, thedifferences are quite clear here; one poet is a traditional English romanticistwhilst the other is a more modern free flowing verse poet.
Bibliography Keats, J.K. (1816). On First looking into Chapman’s Homer.
England: John Keats.Walcott, D.W. (1948). Collected Poems. : Derek Walcott.Walcott, D.W.
(1962). A Far Cry from Africa. : DerekWalcott.Keats, J. (2018). John Keats. Biography.com.
Retrieved 26January 2018, from https://www.biography.com/people/john-keats-9361568LOGAN, W. (2014).
KEATS’S CHAPMAN’S HOMER. The Yale Review,102(2), 17-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/yrev.12125