The following passage is from a marvelous biography of Keats by my former professor Aileen Ward: John Keats: The Making of a Poet.
The air was still electric with adventure when, one evening later in October, [Charles Cowden] Clarke invited [Keats] up to Warner Street to share a discovery. A friend of [Leigh] Hunt’s had loaned him a 1616 folio of George Chapman’s translation of Homer, a treasure in the days when much Elizabethan literature had not been reprinted and was hard to come by. Both Keats and Clarke knew Homer only through Pope’s translation, which tailored the long, swinging hexameters of the Greek to the neat proportions of the balanced couplet. As they searched Chapman for some of the great passages–Helen’s conversation with Priam on the walls of Troy, the descriptions of the shield of Diomed, the chariot of Neptune–they found a free-striding verse that matched Homer’s own, and a hard masculine strength of phrase that made Pope’s elegant abstractions seem thin and bloodless. Where Pope had described the shipwrecked Ulysses as he staggered up on the Phaeacian shore, streamng with salt water:
his knees no more
perform’d their office, or his weight upheld:
His swoln heart heav’d, his bloated body swell’d:
From mouth to nose the briny torrent ran,
And lost in lassitude lay all the man,
Deprived of voice, of motion, and of breath,
The soul scarce waking in the arms of death, …
Chapman showed him
both knees falt’ring, both
His strong hands hanging down, and all with froth
His cheeks and nostrils flowing, voice and breath
Spent to all use, and down he sank to death.
The sea had soak’ d his heart through. . . .
As Clarke recalled, Keats shouted with delight at this last line. This was what it was to lead a band of heroes against Troy and voyage homeward through long years of misadventure and lie half drowned on a lonely beach; this was what Homer had been saying all along–or so he thought; this was poetry of a kind that had not been written in England for two hundred years.
All night they turned the pages of the great calf-bound book together. When Keats tore himself away at last it was almost six. He walked home through the empty streets under the fading planets, with the lines of a sonnet beating in his head. The storm of that night’s excitement ·had stirred up the very depths of his mind; things he had seen and felt and read in the last few months and six or eight years ago were washing up together on the shores of his consciousness. The sea which he had stared at from the cliffs of Margate, the stars he had watched and the moon
lifting her silver rim
Above a cloud, and with a gradual swim
Coming into the blue with all her light, . …
the Mediterranean islands and the new vistas of poetry which he had glimpsed that evening with Clarke: all these were jostling in his mind with phrases from Shakespeare and Wordsworth and recollections more distant still–passages from Bonnycastle and Robertson describing Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus and Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific and Cortez’s first view of Mexico City, which recalled a painting by Titian which Severn may have pointed out to him that summer. When he reached Dean Street at dawn he took a piece of paper, marked lines down the right-hand margin to guide him in his rhymes, and wrote out the poem that had been taking shape in his head. When it was done, he made a copy and sent it off by messenger to Clarke, who found it on his breakfast table when he came down that morning:
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 low brow’d Homer ruled as his Demesne;
Yet could I never judge what Men could mean,
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 wond’ring 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.
It is not hard to imagine Clarke’s amazement as he read the sonnet over. The poem was a miracle; not simply because of its mastery of form, or because Keats was only twenty when he wrote it, or because he wrote it in the space of an hour or two after a night without sleep. Rather because nothing in his earlier poetry gave any promise of this achievement: the gap between this poem and his summer work could be leaped only by genius. He had still to rework a phrase here and there before he was quite satisfied; he overlooked a false rhyme in the sixth line and a historical slip in the eleventh which went unnoticed till Tennyson pointed it out years later. But the unity of form and feeling that begins in the first line and swells in one crescendo of excitement to the final crashing silence was instantaneous and unimprovable. After the reverberation of that ending has died away, something new appears to our eyes. The sonnet, we realize, is not about Chapman, or Homer, or even Keats’s reading of Chapman’s translation. It is about something much larger, more universal, the rapture of discovery itself–of a new star in the vast heavens, of a sea where none was known before. Cortez standing on his peak is Keats himself on the cliff at Margate, staring at the sea and thinking “on what will be, and what has been”; the poem as a whole expresses his rising excitement of the previous weeks, from the moment Clarke promised to introduce him to Hunt. Saluted by Hunt and his friends, his eyes opened to new kingdoms of poetry, Keats felt the horizons of his world expanding beyond all expectation. It was the limitless possibilities of his own future that he saw spread out before him that morning, shining with the promise of El Dorado.
— posted by Roger W. Smith