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 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
To begin, both employ
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: ln. 10) – perhaps
referencing the recent discovery of Uranus in 1781. This is further reaffirmed
with various critiques on it today ‘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, an example being the incorporation of the word
‘swims’ as it 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 himself of how fluent he is with the use of figures of speech,
for example ‘the sail which leans on light’ (Walcott, 1816: ln. 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, and
dark being 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) in particular ‘The salients of
colonial policy. What is that to the white child hacked in bed? To savages,
expendable as Jews?’ (Walcott, 1962, ln. 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 considered the issues of the day.
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: ln.
1-2) This idea of ‘realms of gold’ brings a vivid image to mind of a rich land
full of promise and adventure, to which is he alludes to the discovery of at
the end of the poem with ‘Silent, upon a peak in Darien’ which is a hill in
Panama, within the Americas.
opening line is an immediate introduction to Keats’ imagery as a writing
technique, to help the reader, see what he is describing. ‘Realms of gold’ (Keats,
1816: ln. 1) 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: ln. 1) 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.
Keats refers the Aegean Sea surrounding Greece with ‘Round the western islands
have I been, which bards in fealty to Apollo hold’ (Keats, 1816: ln. 3-4)
Through the use of the term ‘western islands’ where Homers Odyssey would have
taken place; with the reference to the Greek god Apollo further supporting 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, shown through
his use of the phrase ‘which bards in fealty to Apollo hold’ (Keats, 1816: ln.
4) bards being the orators of old within Greek society.
was engrossed in Greek mythology and mentions it constantly within his work
with lines such as, like Keats, he used these Greek classics as a comparison to
the modern times he was living in. One using this to describe the discovery of
the new world, whilst the other describes living within this New World almost a
both Keats’ and Walcott’s’ poems the parallels of the past and present are constantly
challenged, painting a picture of the evolution of literature from the classics
into what literature has become today, an example of this is Sea Grapes (Walcott, 1948: ln. 1-6)
‘That sail which leans on light,
tired of islands,
a schooner beating up the Caribbean
for home, could be Odysseus,
home-bound on the Aegean;
that father and husband’s’
meld of both the past and present in the poem creates a contrast. Schooners are
16th century ships that were in use by colonial nations during the
colonial era, he tacitly contrasts this with his mentioning of ‘Odysseus, home
bound on the Aegean’ in the next stanza. Odysseus being a tale from Greek
mythology, is on the opposite side of history, like how On First looking into Chapman’s Homer is also written at a
different point in history. (Keats, 1816: ln. 6-8)
‘That deep-browed Homer ruled as his
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and
this passage Keats speaks of Homer in the same stanza as mentioning Chapman. He
is essentially crediting Chapmans’ translation of the Greek classics, stating
that he had never experienced the pure serenity of the classics until they had
been translated by Chapman into English. This shows an almost adulation for the
classics, referring to them as ‘serene.’ This adulation highlights the change
in poetry through the centuries, from strict styles into less rigid free flowing
poets do differ in styles, Keats’ poem is a Petrarchan sonnet with a rigid
structure – contrasting Walcott’s free-flow verse. The lapse in rigidity mirrors
changes to societal class systems during 17th century that Keats
wrote within – one of class divide – to the more flexible Walcott experienced in
the late 20th century, one of social mobility. This has reflected itself
onto poetry which has become not just a pastime for the educated elite, but
also for the masses.
use of tropes and figures of speech are common with both, 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.
in his poem Keats initiates a shift in the readers emotions with ‘Then felt I…’
(Keats, 1816: ln. 9). Similar techniques are employed by Walcott to his advantage
with ‘the classics can console, but not enough.’ (Walcott, 1948: ln. 19) both
techniques being there to illicit an effective emotional response from the
reader. This is done to maintain interest from the reader, as the emotional
changes spur on curiosity within them.
A similar point is made by
Walcott, 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 had made me one of the chosen.’ (Walcott, 1998: XL1)
is an example of this, along with ‘the classics can console, but not enough’
(Walcott, 1948: ln. 19) On top of this it also shows that Walcott romanticised
the classics of Greece, like Keats.
In conclusion these are two very different
poets. One was present through the height of colonialism whilst the other
witnessed its decline, through his poem ‘a
far cry from Africa’ you can see how Keats neutrality on colonialism
contrasts with Walcott’s distaste for it. Moving on from this, both make use of
literary techniques such as verbal imagery, tropes and figures of speech to provoke
emotional responses within their readers. Both like to draw on parallels between
the past and present to paint images in their readers minds, what does differ
however is how they structure their poems, one being a rigid English
romanticist; whilst the other an International modernist poet.
(1816). On First looking into Chapman’s
Homer. England: John Keats.
(2018). John Keats. Biography.com. Retrieved 26 January 2018, from
(2014). KEATS’S CHAPMAN’S HOMER. The Yale Review, 102(2), 17-18.
(1948). Collected Poems. Sea Grapes:
(1962). A Far Cry from Africa. ln 8-10:
(1998). Midsummer (p. XL1). London:
Faber and Faber.