A Savage Journey to the Heart of Chapman’s Homer

Brian Rejack (Illinois State University)
Michael Theune (Illinois Wesleyan)

We know from Charles Cowden Clarke’s affectionate memoir of Keats that after they each moved to London in the fall of 1816 the pair enjoyed a “symposium” or two–basically, raucous nights spent reading poetry, just like 21-year-olds today are so notorious for doing. On one of these occasions, sometime in October 1816, Clarke and Keats pulled an all-nighter reading what the former called “a beautiful copy of the folio edition of Chapman’s translation of Homer” (128). The evening produced Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” the manuscript of which he sent to Clarke just a few hours after they parted company at dawn. To commemorate this occasion, two of the KLP founders recently embarked on a trip to look into Chapman’s Homer themselves.

The voyage crossed the corn and soy fields of central Illinois. Alongside Intrepid Adventurer Mike and Intrepid Adventurer Brian, Intrepid Adventurer Keats (in mask form) had a comfortable ride, glancing out every now and then at the unseasonably warm stubble fields.

Keats in mirror are closer than they appear

Keats in mirror are closer than they appear.

We arrived at the University of Illinois, and after a Monstrous lunch, made our way to the library. Keats requested that we stop outside and document his presence there. We did our best to oblige.

These hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, did nonetheless impede Keats's access to the library sign.

The hedgerows, hardly hedgerows, did nonetheless impede Keats’s access to the library sign.

The real rifts of ore we were after, though, lay inside. Upon ascending not quite Ben Nevis, but some challenging flights of stairs, we three intrepid adventurers arrived at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. We were greeted by extremely accommodating staff members, who graciously allowed us to bring Keats himself into the reading room, even though he lacked the proper ID (such a cameleon poet, that one).

Upon entering the reading room, we met with the 1616 folio edition of Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. It seemed somewhat diminutive in size, all three of us having encountered larger folios before. Thanks to the assistance of curator Adam Doskey, the mystery was solved. It was indeed a folio. Just a diminutive one. Clearly we needed to be more comfortable with being in uncertainties. WAY too much reaching after fact and reason.

But Keats got us back on track, and away we went, seeking out passages from Chapman’s translation mentioned by Clarke, including a final one that produced “one of [Keats’s] delighted stares.” The first appears in Book Three of The Iliad, and Brian and Mike each agreed that the line “And words that flew about our ears like drifts of winter’s snow” felt perfectly Keatsian. Keats was silent on the matter, but we could tell from his look of wild surmise that he concurred.

Delighted stares from all three readers of Chapman's Homer

Delighted stares from all three readers of Chapman’s Homer

Next up we turned to the “prodigious description of Neptune’s passage to the Achive ships, in the thirteenth book” (Clarke 129). Here, Intrepid Adventurer Mike in particular sensed in these lines a sort of prophecy of the titanic language of Keats’s Hyperion: “The woods and all the great hills near trembled beneath the weight / Of his immortal-moving feet. Three steps only he took, / Before he far-off Aegas reach’d, but with the fourth, it shook / With his dread entry” (Clarke 129).

And now we came to the vital moment. The passage that Clarke singles out as the “scene I could not fail to introduce to him” details Odysseus emerging from the sea after being shipwrecked in Book Five:

Then forth came, his both knees falt’ring; both
His strong hands hanging downe; and all with froth
His cheeks and nosthrils flowing. Voice and breath
Spent to all use; and downe he sunke to Death.
The sea had soakt his heart through: all his vaines,
His toiles had rackt, t’a labouring womans paines.
Dead wearie was he. (84)

Clarke points to the phrase “the sea had soakt his heart through” as one of particular interest (he italicizes it). Although we should note that Clarke is likely quoting from one of Richard Hooper’s reprintings of Chapman’s translation, which appeared in a number of different editions across the 1850s and 60s (Clarke mentions in a note to his essay, “With what joy would Keats have welcomed Mr. Richard Hooper’s admirable edition of our old version” (130)). Hooper regularizes the spellings, and alters much of the punctuation. So after “falt’ring” in Clarke (following Hooper) is a comma instead of a semicolon, and “soakt” is changed to “soak’d.” But here is what Keats and Clarke encountered in 1816:

Keats looks into the "old version" of Chapman's Homer once again.

Keats looks into the “old version” of Chapman’s Homer once again.

At this point Intrepid Adventurer Brian remarked upon how often Chapman breaks from end-stopped heroic couplets. No wonder, then, that Keats–who claimed the Augustan poets “sway’d about upon a rocking horse / And thought it Pegasus”–experienced Chapman’s Homer as a “loud and bold” poetic utterance far surpassing that of Pope’s translation. The sublime cragginess of Chapman’s verse was the Parnassus that Keats would venture to ascend, even if his critics would find in Endymion‘s “cockney couplets” an unforgivable transgression of proper poetic decorum.

Lastly, we had to bring Keats’s sonnet to the table. Lucky for us, the U of I owns copies of all of Keats’s published volumes. So with the 1817 volume delivered to us, we brought Homer, Chapman, Clarke, and Keats back together for a bicentennial reunion.

Homer, Chapman, Clarke, and Keats--reuinted and it feels so good.

Homer, Chapman, Clarke, and Keats–reunited and it feels so good.

Keats then decided he wanted to spend some time sitting down to read his first book once again. With Clarke by his side, of course.

Keats admiring his first book.

Keats admiring his first book–that whole Cockney thing worked out all right.

So concluded our day’s adventure in bicentennial commemoration. Well, there was actually an epilogue. No claret, but still…

Keats earned this drink. A day in the archive calls for a tasty beverage.

Keats earned this drink. A day in the archive calls for a tasty beverage.

While at times we may “fancy an immense separation” between ourselves and the loved objects of our critical inquiry, there exist also experiences like ours from today, when we feel “a direct communication of spirit” (Letters II, 5). We hope that endeavors such as these and others featured on the KLP can help establish a channel of communication for all of you as well.

Our sincere thanks to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois, and especially to all the gracious staff members who helped make our visit an enjoyable and edifying one.


Works Cited

Clarke, Charles Cowden and Mary Cowden Clarke. Recollections of Writers. 1878. Fontwell, Sussex: Centaur Press, 1969.

Homer. The Whole Works of Homer, Prince of Poetts: in his Iliads, and Odysses. Trans. George Chapman. London: [Richard Field and William Jaggard], [1616].

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

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