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) – 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, with
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, 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 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) 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) 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.
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) bards
being the orators of old within Greek society.
was engrossed in Greek mythology and mentions it constantly within his work, 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 century later.
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)
‘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)
‘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.’
to note between these two poems is the difference in style, Keats’ poem is
quite rigid as a Petrarchan sonnet whilst Walcott’s is a free-flowing poem.
This is due to the difference in time periods between them, and the changes
that have occurred in poetry during this time. Both maintain three-line stanzas
however, as it is still an effective way to structure a poem to this day.
use of tropes and figures of speech are common with both, and they 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.
in his poem Keats initiates a shift in the readers emotions with ‘Then felt I…’
(Keats, 1816). 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.
This is done to maintain interest from the reader, as the emotional changes
spur on curiosity within them.
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.
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. Both
make very efficient uses of literary techniques such as verbal imagery, tropes
and figures of speech. Both like to draw on parallels between the past and
present to paint images in their readers minds, what differs is in how they structure
their poems, one being a rigid romanticist; whilst the other a modern poet.