John Keats wrote a poem known as ‘On First looking into Chapman’s Homer’. He was an English romantic
poet of the early 19th century known mostly for the use of sensual
imagery within his popular series of odes. Though initially unpopular his poems
are now some of the most critically analysed of the romantic period. ‘Keats daring
and bold style earned him nothing but criticism from two of England’s more
revered publications, Blackwood’s Magazine and the Quarterly Review’ (Keats,
2018) this passage shows how popular poetry magazines at the time scorned his
first attempt at poetry.
Sea Grapes by Derek Walcott is a
poet from a completely different time. Walcott was intrigued by English poets
of the time and was especially influenced by modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot
and Ezra Pound. Walcott was born and raised in the West Indies under the West Indies
Federation, growing up during a time of de-colonisation he began to incorporate
his feelings and emotions about colonial rule into his literary works, this
essay will aim to bridge to gap between there poetry and attempt to find common
ground among centuries of difference.
To begin, both employed
tropes and figures of speech throughout their poems, with a good example being
Keats with ‘When a new planet swims into his ken’ (Keats, 1816) – perhaps referencing
the recent discovery of Uranus in 1781. ‘Critics usually say that the “new
planet” to William Herschel’s observation of Uranus in 1781’ (LOGAN, 2014) It
is a common theme within criticism that this is what he meant. This passage showcases
his use figurative language. The incorporation of the word ‘swims’ likens the
planet to a human being, one who is journeying towards the heavens. Language
like this intrigues the reader to read on.
many examples in how fluent he is with the use of figures of speech, for
example ‘the sail which leans on light’ (Walcott, 1816, p. 1) suggesting how
the journey of literary knowledge, a recurring theme within this poem, is led
by the classics written in Greece. With ‘light’ being the classics suggesting
that dark was what occurred after that.
This is in keeping with the themes Walcott portrays throughout
his own works, as he highlights the colonial brutality towards his culture as a
negative thing, suggesting that he values his culture as if it were a form of wealth.
He highlights this within his other poem ‘A
Far Cry from Africa’ (Walcott, 1962) – ‘The salients of colonial policy. What
is 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 what
both employ the use of imagery throughout their poems. ‘Much have I travell’d
in 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 of
promise, much likes the Americas. Within this opening line immediately you are
introduced to Keats’ imagery as a writing technique, 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 you visualise a rather 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 case however he means the Americas.
Central America at this point was a major source gold for the Spanish, as the
Spanish colonies were plentiful with the resource and as such could be
described as “realms of gold.” In another link, the natives in these colonies
were treated horrendously under colonialism, something Walcott experienced
first-hand. This highlights the comparison that one of these poets developed
their literary styles during the height of colonialism in the early 19th
century whilst the other developed and saw first-hand its decline around the 20th
century. Keats uses the Greek classics as examples and comparisons from which
he compares his own time to, which Walcott also does throughout his poem.
was engrossed in Greek mythology and mentions it constantly within his work, like
Keates, he used these Greek classics as a comparison to the modern times he was
living in. One describing the discovery of the new world whilst the other describes
living within this New World almost a century later. More specifically, his poem
Sea Grapes develops the idea that a conflict between obsession and
responsibility must be resolved.
can be surmised that Keats is referring to the Aegean Sea surrounding Greece with
the quote ‘Round the western islands have I been, which bards in fealty to
Apollo hold’ (Keats, 1816, p. 3-4) Through the use of the term ‘western
islands’ where Homers Odyssey would have taken place; the reference to the
Greek god Apollo supports this. He’s recounting a voyage like the one described
in the Odyssey, however his voyage is one likened to one of literary
development and understanding.
his poem the parallels of the past and present paint a picture of the evolution
of literature from the classics into what it is today. Both being at opposite
sides of history, one in antiquity and the other in modernity. With ‘Then felt
I…’ (Keats, 1816) Keats initiates a shift in the readers emotions. Similar techniques
are employed by Walcott to his advantage with ‘the classics can console, but not
enough.’ (Walcott, 1948) both techniques being there to illicit an effective
emotional response from the reader.
embarked on a similar journey throughout his readings of classical Greek
literature. ‘A schooner beating up the Caribbean’ (Walcott, 1948, p. 3) describes
a journey to islands, like the one made by Odysseus. Its verbal imagery is very
similar to the imagery used by Keats. Using emotive words and phrases like
‘fealty,’ ‘beating,’ and ‘tired’ all these words are actions performed or felt
by humans, bringing the reader closer to the images being described within the
Keats later suggests that prior
to reading Chapmans Homer, he could never appreciate the poem properly. ‘Yet
never did I breathe its pure serene, till I heard Chapman speak out loud and
bold’ (Keats 1816) This invokes the passing on of knowledge like a teacher to a
student, or classic Greeks to modern poets. The use of the word ‘serene’ raises
the feeling of a calming nature that develops from reading a literary classic such
as the Odyssey.
Walcott himself makes a similar
point 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. ‘The
gift of poetry has made me one of the chosen.’ (Walcott 1948) is an example of
this, along with ‘the classics can console, but not enough’ (Walcott, 1948) This
however shows that he also romanticised the classics of Greece, like Keats.
on in the poem Sea Grapes the reader is stirred by Walcott to receive an
intense and stressful feeling, created by the dilemma ‘brings nobody peace’
(Walcott, 1948) This makes the reader wonder why nobody is brought peace, the dilemma
is then explained with ‘the ancient war between obsession and responsibility’ (Walcott
1948) which can only be solved once this conflict is put to rest. The conflict
is 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 the
temptation of obsession, his obsession with war and temptation. The use of the
dilemma keeps the reader interested, however it is not resolved by the end of
the poem. This contrasts with Keats’ poem as that poems dilemma is not explicitly
stated, it is subliminally hidden behind the text. At the end of Keats ‘On First looking into Chapman’s Homer’ the
moment 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 that
their obsession for adventure and wealth had led them here, where they would
find their bounty.
In conclusion these are two very different
poets. One was present through the height of colonialism whilst the other
witnessed its decline. Walcott’s perspective of colonialism being a wholly
negative thing contrasts with Keats’ neutral opinion on the matter, as he never
mentions 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’s
is a more modern approach on poetry, lacking a strict structure or pattern. He
does however stick to lines of three to a stanza, employing traditional metres throughout
his work. The use tropes and figures of speech are common with both, and both
of them are very effective at using them, with Keats’ specialising in verbal
imagery and 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, the
differences are quite clear here; one poet is a traditional English romanticist
whilst the other is a more modern free flowing verse poet.
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. : Derek
Keats, J. (2018). John Keats. Biography.com. Retrieved 26
January 2018, from https://www.biography.com/people/john-keats-9361568
LOGAN, W. (2014). KEATS’S CHAPMAN’S HOMER. The Yale Review,
102(2), 17-18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/yrev.12125