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, there is evidence for this. ‘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.
provides 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.
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) this could be arguing the point that literature and culture are also a
form of wealth, as the ‘goodly states’ and ‘kingdoms’ are still seen and
mentioned alongside the gold.
This is in keeping with the themes Walcott portrays throughout
his own works, as he highlights the colonial brutality towards his culture as being
a horrible 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 they valued.
within this opening line you can begin to see Keats’ strong use of imagery as a
writing technique to help the reader visualise 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.
Aegean lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, baring this in mind Keats
use of the term ‘western islands’ tacitly contrasts them to the east indies.
The east indies were what inspired adventurers such as Cortes and Balboa to
discover the new world, along with the ‘realms of gold’ in the first place.
his poem the constant jumping back and forth between the parallels of the new
and old paint a picture of how literature has developed from the classics into what
it is today. Both being at opposite sides of history, one in antiquity and the
other in modernity. This is where the Volta presents itself, on the edge of fresh
discovery. ‘Then felt I…’ (Keats, 1816) initiates a strong emotional change in
the reader. Walcott employs similar techniques 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, this along with ‘the classics can console, but not enough’ (Walcott,
1948) This however shows that he also romanticised the classics of Greece, like
Further 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.
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 person 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 tradition metres throughout his work. Both use
tropes and figures of speech very effectively, 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.
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