A wild surmise - John Keats
The second poem in the series on sonnets is a Petrarchan sonnet about the joy of discovery; about the moment when we chance upon a thing of beauty, when we see something that is outside our “ken”. Isn’t that what we live for? Novelty is the only kind of immortality that I aspire towards. what I seek, in every relationship, in every collaboration, in every work of art. that I get to witness something that I haven’t before. that new knowledge finds its way to my mind’s eye. We have all felt what Keats felt when he read George Chapman’s translation's of Homer's poetic genius. The poem says a lot about the power of the persona's passion for art, and his adventurous spirit.
Keats, like Van Gogh, is one of those artists whose work was not appreciated in his time. For a poet who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 (he wrote this poem when he was 20), his legacy is tremendous. He is part of the canon of Romantic poets in English Literaure and many writers and artists (Jorge Luis Borges, Andrew Motion etc.) talk about the influence his poetry, style and innovative approach to form have on their own work. Willard Spiegelman in his article about this poem says "No other English poet—not Shakespeare, not Milton —had he died at 25, would be remembered today."
This poem is a response to an Elizabethan playwright’s translation of a bard who was canonised and probably taught as a “classic” of Greek Literature in Keats’s time. For me the most beautiful thing about this poem is the miracle of journeys, and the power of translation (not language but experience - sample this: you are reading my response to Keats's response to chapman's response to Homer's response to the world - The Illiad).
The metaphor of travel is apt. The moment that when we begin to move out of ourselves, when we make ourselves uncomfortable and embrace the mystery of the unknown, is a moment of reinvention. We give birth to ourselves again, every time we encounter truth. As Keats articulates in his ode to a Grecian urn - "truth is beauty/beauty, truth".
This poem is a narrative that strings together a multitude of epiphanies, and embodies the wonder of discovery. Chapman’s homer becomes a metaphor for art, for nature and for the creative spirit of adventure that led explorers of the time to go out in search of new lands and places with little or no prior imagination of what lay ahead. In the end we are all like Keats, and Homer, and Chapman, And Cortez (or Balboa), we are as broken and and as curious as these great explorers, we seek completion, and when we find a shadow of our souls in others, even for a moment, we are caught wordless in the collective dream of this “wild surmise”.
*background image credit: Ryan Inzana
On first looking into Chapman’s Homer John Keats
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 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: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or 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.