When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
… like stout Cortez when with eagle 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.
These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.
Searching for Homer
Homer is difficult to get into nowadays; he was difficult to get into two hundred years ago too. Keats wrote:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
One October night in 1816, when he was twenty-one years old, Keats had read the translation of the Odyssey by George Chapman at a friend’s house – and that very same night, he wrote the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The power of his images haunts me still.
I always enjoyed Greek mythology and especially the story of the Trojan War, but when I read excerpts of the Iliad and the Odyssey in school, they bored me. Homer wrote nearly three thousand years ago and reading him is not easy, especially in a verse form: I gave up on the Iliad at the seemingly endless description of Achilles’s shield. Yet with Keats I could stand on a peak on Darien and see the uncharted sea through the eyes of Cortez (in point of fact, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa but I suppose that wouldn’t have scanned); with Keats I could be Galilei discovering the moons of Jupiter. Keats had seen what I failed to: he had stood on the walls of Troy and had seen the black ships appear on the horizon, he had seen Achilles fight under the walls, he had seen Odysseus tossed in the stormy seas. Keats made me believe in Homer. I went and read Pope’s translation of the Iliad but if the Hungarian verse had been boring, Pope was contrived; and they both lacked punch.
Figuratively – and literally – speaking, I was still to come across Chapman’s Homer.
In the end, for me, a 19th century prose translation from the Gutenberg Project did it. Since then, I consider the Iliad (as opposed to the Greek myths relating to the Trojan War) as one of my favourite books; I’m still reading versions of it. Someday I’ll learn Ancient Greek, and take the poetry in the original (it seems Ransome has much to answer for).
All this, by the way, occasioned by the line of Chapman’s Homer that had – supposedly – inspired Keats to write his sonnet:
“The sea had soak’d his heart through.”
Chapman has got that one so right.
You might also like: ⇒ Chapman's Iliad & Odyssey ⇒ When with Eagle Eyes He Star'd at the Pacific ⇒ Hector's Farewell ⇒ Following Ulysses with Ernle Bradford ⇒ Ransom