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 employedtropes 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, there is evidence for this. ‘Criticsusually say that the “new planet” to William Herschel’s observation of Uranusin 1781’ (LOGAN, 2014) It is a common theme within criticism that this is whathe meant. This passage showcases his use figurative language. The incorporationof the word ‘swims’ likens the planet to a human being, one who is journeyingtowards the heavens. Language like this intrigues the reader to read on.Walcott providesmany examples in how fluent he is with the use of figures of speech, forexample ‘the sail which leans on light’ (Walcott, 1816, p. 1) suggesting howthe journey of literary knowledge, a recurring theme within this poem, is ledby the classics written in Greece.
With ‘light’ being the classics suggestingthat dark was 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) – ‘The salients of colonial policy. Whatis that to the white child hacked in bed? To savages, expendable as Jews?’ (Walcott,1962, p. 8-10) This passage describes the racial unrest between the two cultures.From this we can see both poets employ imagery effectively to highlight whatthey valued. 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,p. 1) The idea of ‘realms of gold’ brings a vivid image of a rich land full ofpromise, much likes the Americas. Already within this opening line you canbegin to see Keats’ strong use of imagery as a writing technique to help thereader visualise what he is describing, ‘Realms of gold’ (Keats, 1816) providesa very accurate, grand image to the readers mind; helping you visualise arather large quantity of gold within an area. ‘Much have I travelled’ (Keats,1816) suggests a voyage to foreign lands, like Odysseus to Troy – In this casehowever he means the Americas. Central America at this point was a major sourcegold for the Spanish, as the Spanish colonies were plentiful with the resourceand as such could be described as “realms of gold.” In another link, thenatives in these colonies were treated horrendously under colonialism, somethingWalcott experienced first-hand. This highlights the comparison that one ofthese poets developed their literary styles during the height of colonialism inthe early 19th century whilst the other developed and saw first-handits decline around the 20th century.
Keats uses the Greek classicsas examples and comparisons from which he compares his own time to, whichWalcott also does throughout his poem. Walcottwas engrossed in Greek mythology and mentions it constantly within his work, likeKeates, he used these Greek classics as a comparison to the modern times he wasliving in. One describing the discovery of the new world whilst the other describesliving within this New World almost a century later.
More specifically, his poemSea Grapes develops the idea that a conflict between obsession andresponsibility must be resolved. Itcan be surmised that Keats is referring to the Aegean Sea surrounding Greece withthe quote ‘Round the western islands have I been, which bards in fealty toApollo hold’ (Keats, 1816, p. 3-4) Through the use of the term ‘westernislands’ where Homers Odyssey would have taken place; the reference to theGreek god Apollo supports this. He’s recounting a voyage like the one describedin the Odyssey, however his voyage is one likened to one of literarydevelopment and understanding. TheAegean lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, baring this in mind Keatsuse of the term ‘western islands’ brings up a contrast between them and the eastindies. The east indies were what inspired adventurers such as Cortes andBalboa to discover the new world, along with the ‘realms of gold’ in the firstplace. Throughouthis poem the constant jumping back and forth between the parallels of the newand old paint a picture of how literature has developed from the classics into whatit is today.
Both being at opposite sides of history, one in antiquity and theother in modernity. With ‘Then felt I…’ (Keats, 1816) initiating a shift in thereaders emotions. Similar techniques are employed by Walcott to his advantagewith ‘the classics can console, but not enough.’ (Walcott, 1948) bothtechniques being there to illicit an effective emotional response from thereader. Walcottembarked on a similar journey throughout his readings of classical Greekliterature. ‘A schooner beating up the Caribbean’ (Walcott, 1948, p.
3) describesa journey to islands, like the one made by Odysseus. Its verbal imagery is verysimilar to the imagery used by Keats. Using emotive words and phrases like’fealty,’ ‘beating,’ and ‘tired’ all these words are actions performed or feltby humans, bringing the reader closer to the images being described within thepoems. Keats later suggests that priorto reading Chapmans Homer, he could never appreciate the poem properly. ‘Yetnever did I breathe its pure serene, till I heard Chapman speak out loud andbold’ (Keats 1816) This invokes the passing on of knowledge like a teacher to astudent, or classic Greeks to modern poets.
The use of the word ‘serene’ raisesthe feeling of a calming nature that develops from reading a literary classic suchas the Odyssey. 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. Further on in the poem Sea Grapesthe reader is stirred by Walcott to receive an intense and stressful feeling, createdby the dilemma ‘brings nobody peace’ (Walcott, 1948) This makes the reader wonderwhy nobody is brought peace, the dilemma is then explained with ‘the ancientwar between obsession and responsibility’ (Walcott 1948) which can only besolved once this conflict is put to rest. The conflictis similar to the one Keats highlights in his poem, it is caused by one’s responsibilities,like Odysseus staying loyal to his wife, but only doing so by fighting thetemptation of obsession, his obsession with war and temptation.
The use of thedilemma keeps the reader interested, however it is not resolved by the end ofthe poem. This contrasts with Keats’ poem as that poems dilemma is not explicitlystated, it is subliminally hidden behind the text. At the end of Keats ‘On First looking into Chapman’s Homer’ themoment Cortez first see’s the Americas is described ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien,Look’d at each other with a wild surmise’ (Keats, 1816) – The ending suggests thattheir obsession for adventure and wealth had led them here, where they wouldfind their bounty. Inconclusion these are two very different poets.
One was present through theheight of colonialism whilst the other witnessed its decline. Walcott’s perspectiveof colonialism being a wholly negative thing contrasts with Keats’ neutralopinion on the matter, as he never mentions his person opinion on it throughoutthe poem. Keats employs the Petrarchan sonnet, with a formal rhyming pattern ofa-b-b-a-a-b-b-a-c-d-c-d-c-d, whilst Walcott’s is a more modern approach onpoetry, lacking a strict structure or pattern. He does however stick to linesof three to a stanza, employing tradition metres throughout his work. Both usetropes and figures of speech very effectively, with Keats’ specialising inverbal imagery and the use of Volta’s whilst Walcott excels in dramatics andshock value, emanating from his use of a short, brutal structure. All in all,the differences are quite clear here; one poet is a traditional Englishromanticist whilst the other is a more modern free flowing verse.
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