“Dracula”: Book Review

I first read Dracula when I was studying towards my A-Levels; I wrote a paper comparing certain aspects of Robert Browning’s poems, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. During this time, I did enjoy reading the prolific gothic novel, yet, as I was studying it, I felt as though I might not have appreciated it as much as I could have done. So, I decided that it was time for a reread.

A Bit of Context

Dracula by Bram Stoker.jpg

TitleDracula.
Author: Bram Stoker.
Publication: 1897, ‎Archibald Constable and Company.
My Edition: 2008, Oneworld Classics.
Length: 354 pages.
Genre: Classic, Horror.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker was an Irish writer born in the mid-nineteenth century. His life was not particularly noteworthy until he moved to London to take over the management of Henry Irving’s theatre. This brought him into the midst of a growing literary society, home to writers such as Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Stoker’s first novel, The Snake’s Pass, was published in 1890, yet this, along with his earlier works, which consisted of short stories and children’s fiction, was very unsuccessful. His next novel was Dracula, yet this, too, was unpopular when it was first published. Then, towards the end of Stoker’s lifetime, the novel resurfaced in the literary world and, finally, Stoker was awarded the success that he deserved.

Since then, Dracula has never once been out of print, and is responsible for countless adaptations. It is one of the forefathers of the gothic genre and, as well as providing significant insights into contemporary attitudes towards sex, religion and globalisation, it makes a fantastic story.

Plot Overview

Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means that, rather than consisting of one, long narrative, it is told through various letters and diary entries. This also means that the narrator of the story is constantly changing, which helps to break up this rather long novel. The story follows the experiences of seven primary characters: Jonathan Harker, John Seward, Professor Van Helsing, Quincey Morris, Lord Godalming, Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra.

It begins with Jonathan Harker, a legal clerk who has been sent to visit a foreign Count who is planning on moving to England. This Count, Dracula, is a very mysterious man, but Harker does not suspect him of anything sinister until he realises that Dracula has locked him inside of the castle – he is a prisoner. The Count, meanwhile, is crawling up and down the building wearing Harker’s clothes and pretending to be him as he sends letters and makes himself known in town.

There is a poison in my blood, in my soul, which may destroy me; which must destroy me, unless some relief comes to us  –  Dracula.

From this point onwards, the story follows the mysterious story of Count Dracula. He moves to England, as he planned, and, once there, he produces pure chaos. Wolves escape from zoos and mysterious bite marks begin to appear on sleeping women. I don’t want to give too much more away here, because, if you haven’t already read Dracula, I strongly recommend that you do read it, even if you do not ordinarily like the classics. It has become a strong influence for many modern books, from vampire-based books such as Twilight to the Harry Potter series. What I will say, though, is that the band of characters who I mentioned earlier form a sort of defence team who work together as they attempt to vanquish the vampire.

*** THE NEXT SECTION OF THIS REVIEW MAY CONTAIN SOME SPOILERS. IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW, THEN I SUGGEST THAT YOU SKIP TO THE “MY CONCLUSION” SECTION OF THIS POST! ***

Going Deeper into the Novel…

In this section of my reviews, I like to choose a couple of themes from the book that I can discuss a little more thoroughly. This time, I would like to talk about women, and I would like to talk about life.

Women

There are two female characters in Dracula: Mina and Lucy. They are friends, but are very different kinds of women. Mina is obedient and loyal, always thinking of ways in which she can aid her husband. Lucy, meanwhile, is much more flirtatious; she receives three marriage proposals in one day, suggesting that she has led each man on, two of them under false pretences. She holds this power over her suitors, which reflects contemporary fears regarding ‘the new woman’, a powerful, independent woman who was not reliant on men.

Dracula - Annotations.jpgThese allusions to ‘the new woman’ are emphasised when Lucy is given vampiric powers. With these powers, she attacks young children, which demonstrates a clear rejection of her maternal instincts and the only role that was traditionally considered suitable for women – childcare.

Interestingly, though, it is not only Lucy who demonstrates these characteristics. From early on in Dracula, it is revealed that Mina is a very intelligent woman. She knows the train tables off by heart and even knows shorthand. This is not a threat to masculinity until later on, when Professor Van Helsing suggests that she has a “man-brain”. Both Lucy and Mina thus reflect the growing contemporary fear of female power. Whether women reject their maternal instincts and abuse men, or whether they find a way to outwit men, this is a new kind of woman.

Life

Dracula poses many questions about life, death and life after death. After all, we meet Renfield, one of the patients in Doctor Seward’s asylum, who is desperate to “consume” life. He begins by luring a large number of flies into his room, and then feeds them to his collection of spiders. He uses the spiders to tempt birds inside, and then he eats the birds (only because Seward refused him a cat).

It’s a brutal process that is repeated many times throughout the course of the novel. Yet it represents more than mere brutality; it represents the vampire race, and the idea of attacking people for their souls, blood or, in Renfield’s terms, “life”.

I don’t care for the pale people, I like them with lots of blood in them, and hers had all seemed to have run out. I didn’t think of it at the time, but when she went away I began to think, and it made me mad to know that He had been taking the life out of her  –  Dracula.

In contextual terms, this idea of stealing life relates both to science and religion. This is due to the links to euthanasia, which are emphasised when Mina asks the men if they will – if it comes to it – kill her. Science was progressing quite quickly during this period, and euthanasia had begun to be discussed more openly. It was a moral dilemma, and is one that is debated throughout Dracula. It must be said, though, that although Mina pleads for this action to be carried out, Stoker does seem to present euthanasia as a negative thing. After all, the Count causes his victims to want to be bitten, and perhaps to want to die, too. This may suggest that those seeking euthanasia can be easily manipulated. You see, we would not call Dracula’s actions euthanasia; we would call them murder.

My Conclusion

I could not be happier with my decision to reread Dracula. I enjoyed the novel the first time around when I had to read it, but, this time, I enjoyed it even more. The characters are so distinct that, what with their layered narratives, this novel feels much longer than it actually is. I also need to mention Stoker’s incredible descriptions. Dracula’s castle was made so real to me through his language; it was easy to see how a nineteenth-century reader would be afraid of the Count.

Dracula - Annotations2.jpgWhilst I personally did not feel this fear, the novel did evoke some strong emotions in me. I became excited as the tension grew, and disappointed whenever the group fighting Dracula met a pitfall. More than anything else, though, I was intrigued. Stoker’s world is so mesmerising – so distinct. Perhaps the two most interesting aspects of it are (a) the way that Mina is able to see into the mind of Dracula, which reminded me pointedly of the way, in the Harry Potter books, that Harry is able to look into the mind of Lord Voldemort, and (b) the vampire women, who are both sensual and destructive.

I could honestly continue to talk about Dracula for hours, but I have already written an essay about it, so I’ll hold off. Truly though, I can’t hide how special this book is, and how desperate I am to recommend it to anyone and everyone. If I had one critique, it would be that the book does seem a little slow at times, but I never really felt that this stopped me from enjoying the story. If anything, it made me love it all the more!


Thank you so much for reading this review! This book was a part of my July 2018 reading challenge; if you have been wondering why I haven’t written any reviews for the books in this challenge (before this), it is because I am seriously behind with my reading. It has taken me a long time to finish Dracula, not because of the novel, but because of how busy I have been recently. Nevertheless, I hope to fit in a few more books before the end of the month, so stay tuned for more reviews!

You can click here for an A-Z list of all my reviews (so far)!

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The Very Short Story Starter – Prompt #4

I recently treated myself to John Gillard’s The Very Short Story Starter, which is filled with 101 flash fiction prompts that I hope will provide me with some blogging inspiration over the summer months. Here was today’s prompt, “Unrecognizable”:

Cover.jpgWrite a story from the perspective of someone who has woken up in a room or place they do not recognise (in 200 words or less).

Please feel free to have a go at this prompt, too; I would love to read what you come up with. I will be posting these prompts quite regularly, and if they spark your inspiration, please do paste a link to your story in the comments section!

Previous prompts are available here.


Caged Flesh

The first thing that I became aware of, as I resurfaced from the depths of my subconsciousness, was the pain. It burned through my entire body, making my knees buckle: a great, dull ache as though I had been forced into a too-small space.

Next came the fear. As I opened my eyes, I realised that the familiar woods were gone. The grassy scent of the trees had vanished, and been replaced by a cool, clinical smell that did not quite mask the stench of something monstrous.

I knew that smell. I had grown up with that smell, and I had grown to despise it, for it was the stench of death.

Fear now consuming all other thoughts, I tried to get to my feet, but there was something holding me back. I tried again, and heard a strange, clinking noise from around my neck.

I was just telling myself not to panic when the Strangers entered the room. They were wearing green overalls and white gloves that stretched up to their elbows. I began to struggle desperately against my bonds, screaming for help, but they took no notice of my pain.

They didn’t offer me one word of comfort as they slit my neck. All I heard was one, unfamiliar word, whispered through their masks.

“Venison.”


Word Count: 217.

Thank you ever so much for reading, and remember, if you do want to have a go at this prompt, paste a link in the comments section so that I can read it!

My Monday Message – 18/06/18

Welcome to another of my Monday Message posts! Our quote this week comes from a book that I am currently reading: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! I realise that this particular story might seem a little out of season, but it’s one of the books that I wanted to read over the summer (when I have more time on my hands).

[T]hough it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!  –  Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”.

My Monday Message 3This quote occurs early on in the book’s first stave (which is basically like a chapter). Scrooge tells his nephew how little he values Christmas, and his nephew responds with these wonderful words. Obviously, he is here talking about Christmas, saying that although it may not aid him in a monetary sense, it can aid him from a more emotional, moral sense. Despite Christmas currently being a long way off (annoyingly), I think that we can learn a lot from these words.

The point is to remember that things can have worth, even if this worth not always obvious. There are certain things that we can do, whether they aid ourselves, or they aid others, and they won’t make us financially richer, but they may, as Scrooge’s nephew says, do us good. So, that’s my message for the week: don’t just focus on the money. Think about the other things – the things that make you happy, and the things that make those around you happy. Basically, don’t be like Ebenezer Scrooge!

My Monday Message – 28/05/18

For a while now, I have wanted to implement some kind of a routine to my blog posts. At the moment, they seem a little too sporadic and, at times, repetitive. So, for at least the summer period when I have more time on my hands, I am going to attempt to post via a schedule. This isn’t at all a rigid plan, but it would mean that I would attempt to post, for example, a poem every Saturday and a non-fiction piece every Wednesday.

My Monday Message 3I haven’t quite finalised this schedule yet, but I’ll let you know when I have it finished. You will then know which posts to expect from me on each day, but, more importantly, it will provide a routine that will hopefully help me to keep my posts interesting.

One aspect of this plan is the Monday Message: each Monday, I will provide a literary quote, along with some thoughts about its meaning. The idea is that each quote should contain some kind of a moral message that will hopefully provide some motivation for the week ahead! This plan is still essentially a pilot, so let me know what you think!

Why cover the same ground again? … It goes against my grain to repeat a tale told once, and told so clearly  –  Homer, “The Odyssey”.

When I chose this quote for the week, I was thinking of it through a literary lense. After all, no writer wants to write that which has already been written; we all strive to be original. Yet this sense of originality can be applied to all aspects of life.

Human beings are creatures of habit. When we find a system that works, we preserve it. We complete the same action again and again, yet seem surprised when we achieve different results. Generally speaking, the first time that a thing is done, the best that it will be. It is unfamiliar and spontaneous, and this is a part of what makes it seem attractive to us. By repeating it, we are only repeating the action, not this spontaneity.

So, with that in mind, here’s my message for the week: strive to be different. The familiar may be comfortable, but it’s not always what’s best for us. Walk home a different way from work or read a type of book that you would ordinarily ignore, but, whatever you do, remember that changes do not need to be drastic to be effective.

“On Melancholy”: Analysis

The Poem

On Melancholy

By John Keats

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

The Message

Keats’ “On Melancholy” is all about (you guessed it) melancholy. It begins by suggesting how people should cope with misery, listing the things that a person shouldn’t do, and then what they should do, instead. This is more than just a self-help poem, though; Keats goes on to consider the advantages of melancholy, encouraging his readers to make use of their sadness and turn it into inspiration for their writing. After all, as Keats suggests, misery is a part of being human and, without it, there can be no joy.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

“On Melancholy” is written in a roughly iambic pentameter with a few deviances from the rhythm (particularly in the third stanza). What is perhaps more interesting, though, is the poem’s rhyme scheme: in the first two stanzas, it follows an ABABCDECDE pattern. This (along with the iambic pentameter) forms the rhythm of the Keatsian Ode. Yet this rhyme is broken in the final stanza of the poem, where it follows the pattern: ABABCDEDCE. This is only a small change, but it does demonstrate a disruption of this common form, suggesting that Keats’ poetry is perhaps altered by his own misery.

Line by Line

  • “No, no,” – The ode begins in mid-conversation, sounding as though Keats is denying something that has already been said. This is because there was actually a stanza preceding this first one in earlier drafts of the ode. It took me a fair while to track down this missing stanza, but you can read more about it here. Regardless, its removal emphasises the passion in the poem; in a way, it is as though Keats is rejecting his own melancholy.
  • “Lethe” – This is the first of many classical references in this ode. As we learn from his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, Keats was very passionate about classical mythology. This river is also known as ‘the river of forgetfulness’; a person was supposed to touch the water, and then forget all of their earthly troubles.
  • “Tight-rooted” – It is interesting that the wolfsbane is described as “tight-rooted” and therefore difficult to remove from the ground, because Keats may be perhaps suggesting that melancholy is also difficult to remove.
  • “Poisonous wine” – When the wolfsbane flower is used in small quantities, it acts as a painkiller, but when it is used in larger quantities, it becomes extremely poisonous. It is not clear which use of the flower Keats is talking about here, but considering his warning against going to Lethe, it is likely that he is also asking people not to suppress their pain through painkillers.
  • “Kiss’d” / “Prosperine” – There is a certain amount of romantic/sexual imagery here, as Proserpine was the goddess of fertility. She was also kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, and Greek mythology suggested that an arrangement was eventually settled between Hades and Demeter, Proserpine’s mother. Proserpine would spend half of each year in the underworld, and half of it with her mother. This reference presents ideas of death and sadness, but also new life, which links to the inspiration Keats believes can be had from being melancholy.
  • “Nightshade” / “Yew-berries” – Nightshade is very similar to wolfsbane; in small doses, it is a painkiller, but it can also be lethal. The same can also be said about yew-berries; Keats is really emphasising the need to endure pain without trying to escape it, even if that escape is through death.
  • “The beetle” / “The death-moth” – As with the link to Proserpine, these insects have multiple meanings. In one respect, it is interesting that Kears is using insects to make his point, as it reveals an appreciation for nature and all its (small) details. Both the beetle (think of the scarab-beetles used in Egyptian tombs) and the death-moth are associated with both death and new life (the beetle appeared to come from nothing as they hatch inside dunghills, whilst the both appears to die when it is a caterpillar, but then is born again).
  • “Mournful Psyche” – Psyche is synonymous with ‘soul’, but this is also another classical reference. Psyche was a human who married the immortal Apollo under the condition that she never looked at him. Obviously, she did, and had to endure terrible trials for her crime. Eventually, however, Psyche is reunited with Apollo, emphasising ideas of resurrection and how happiness comes from grief.
  • “The downy owl” – The owl is another symbol of death – one which Keats thinks we should not dwell on, just as we should not dwell on the beetle or death-moth.
  • “For shade to shade” – Note the hushing sound here; this links to death and explores notions of misery (whilst repetition emphasises the double meanings running throughout this first stanza).
  • “Drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” – Here, at last, is the reason why we should not be suppressing our sadness: because this would be to “drown” a part of the soul, and thus limit our humanity and imagination. Remember, the soul is a part of what makes us human and, according to Keats, so is our sadness.
  • “From heaven” – Melancholy is presented as a gift “from heaven”; no wonder we shouldn’t suppress it if it’s a gift from God (even though Keats was an atheist…).
  • “A weeping cloud” – This sounds more like Wordsworth than Keats! Why is the “cloud” “weeping”? It is because it sent down misery to the earth “from heaven”.
  • “Fosters the droop-headed flowers” – Here Keats suggests that our sadness somehow affects nature and makes nature sad, too (it “fosters” the flowers that resemble melancholy) – because human beings are a part of nature?
  • “Hides the green hill in an April shroud” – Whilst our sadness “fosters” the flowers associated with sadness, it “shroud[s]” the greenery that may have raised our spirits; in other words, when someone is depressed, they fail to notice the good things in life, seeing only the bad (and miserable).
  • “Glut” – his is a harsh-sounding word, but it basically means ‘feed’. As both words are one syllable, it is worth asking why Keats opted to use “glut”. To me, it seems more negative: it is associated with gluttony and, as I already noted, sounds a little harsh. Perhaps Keats is suggesting that we should overfeed our sorrow in order to find it more inspiring (we should gorge on sadness while we can).
  • “Morning rose” / “Rainbow” / “Globed peonies” – These beautiful things are what Keats thinks we should be focussing on (not on death omens), yet these things aren’t entirely positive. None of them will last for very long: flowers wilt and die and the “rainbow” is only visible when the spray from the waves is in front of the sun. Keats thus draws attention to the impermanence of beauty, which actually relates more to melancholy than it does to anything happy.
  • “Thy mistress” – Keats makes two assumptions here: firstly, he assumes that his readers are male, and secondly, he assumes they have a wife or lover. This lover is the man’s “mistress”, though, providing an interesting comment on gender.
  • “Emprison” – Although the man’s lover is his “mistress”, he is able to “emprison” her, indicating a gender and power reversal.
  • Let her rave, / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes” – Keats suggests that when a man’s lover is angry, he should let her “rave” and he should “feed” upon her anguish. The repetition of the word “deep” makes this seem a little sinister, almost as though he is taking the misery from his lover, as though sadness is a limited resource that passes from person to person.
  • “She swells with Beauty – Beauty that must die” – Keats is still talking about the impermanence of beauty now, but it is interesting that he chooses to personify “Beauty”. Instead of simply saying “thy mistress” is beautiful, Keats uses the word “dwells” to make her beauty seem even more fleeting.
  • “Joy” / “Pleasure” – Keats also personifies “Joy” and “Pleasure”. These personification allegories were a traditional way of describing abstract concepts, and Keats appears to be drawing on this tradition in this ode.
  • “Hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” – Keats is basically saying that Joy is blowing kisses and saying goodbye (joy leaves as sadness takes precedence), but this isn’t necessarily presented as a negative. Joy leaves on a high, leaving behind him room for sorrow to be better appreciated?
  • “Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips” – “Pleasure” turns “to poison”, this juxtaposition of happiness and sadness emphasising how both experiences are a part of being human. The “bee” again reveals how Keats pays attention to nature’s details and also indicates that once “Pleasure” has become “poison”, it cannot return to a point of “Pleasure”. This reflects how, once a bee stings, it must die, and demonstrates the power of Melancholy over Pleasure.
  • “Temple of Delight” – Keats suggests that “Delight” is a thing to be worshipped. He may be indicating that happiness is given an unfair amount of attention compared to misery thinking that Melancholy should be glorified.
  • “Veil’d” – This “veil’d” reflects the “shroud” in the second stanza, but whilst the veil is associated with marriage and new beginnings, the shroud is associated with death. This emphasises the binary between happiness and misery.
  • “Melancholy has her sovran shrine” – Firstly, “sovran” is an abbreviation of ‘sovereign’ that was used commonly in the seventeenth century. It turns out that “Melancholy” exists within the “temple of Delight”, emphasising this binary.
  • “Seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape – The only ones able to see the “Melancholy” within “Delight” are those who actively search for it with “strenuous tongue[s]”. It is important to note that this reference to the “grape” reflects the references to wine in the ode’s first stanza, as alcohol may be being presented as another way of suppressing pain/misery.
  • “His palate fine” – Keats is still talking about those capable of seeing sadness within “Delight” and by suggesting that they have a “palate fine”, he is essentially glorifying them, implying that they have good taste for appreciating sadness.
  • “Soul” – Ideas regarding the soul link to the concept of dualism (this is the theory that suggests the soul can exist outside of the body). The soul is “hung” as one of Melancholy’s “trophies” even after the body has died.
  • “Taste the sadness” – Much of this stanza considers the mouth and taste, suggesting that, in a way, we consume feelings such as joy and melancholy.
  • “Her cloudy trophies hung” – This is a very ominous end to the poem, but it does help to demonstrate the power of Melancholy. The souls or “trophies” of Melancholy have accepted sadness and thus been conquered (which is here presented as a positive thing – Keats wants us to succumb to our sadness).

Overview

“Ode on Melancholy” is a complicated poem, but it’s much easier if you break it down into its separate stanzas. The first stanza is advising against becoming trapped in misery and associating yourself with death omens. At the same time, though, there is a constant theme of new life and regeneration running through this stanza.

Ode on Melancholy, Keats.jpgThe second stanza begins to describe the actual qualities of melancholy and suggests that we should focus on the impermanence of beauty and, if a lover becomes angry, we should not try to calm her; rather, we should take her hand and appreciate her anger.

The final stanza is a little more complicated as it personifies Beauty, Pleasure and Melancholy. It is basically demonstrating the importance of melancholy, as it exists within delight and is something to be admired, rather than rejected.

It’s an interesting poem and tends to make misery seem a little better. Perhaps this would be a good one to read when you’re feeling down? The double meanings in the first stanza are particularly inspiring, whilst there are some fascinating comments on gender; why is that melancholy is a “she” and delight is a “he”?


Thank you so much for reading this post! If you’re interested in looking at more of Keats’ poems, I have also written analyses for “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“, “Bright Star” and “On Fame“. Thank you again; if you have any thoughts or questions, there is a comments section at the bottom of this page. I’d love to hear from you!

Blue Murder

This bit of writing is for Sammi Cox’s Weekend Writing Prompt, which, this week, considers the theme of colours. My attempt at the prose challenge seems to have gone in the opposite direction to the light, happy thoughts that come to mind, though! Thanks for reading and enjoy.


Colours.jpg

Credit: Sammi Cox

She screamed blue murder when I told her.

I think she blames me; because I was his friend, but older and therefore surely more mature, it was apparently my responsibility. That wasn’t right, though; he was my friend, but that didn’t mean that I knew every, little thing about him. I didn’t know – I mean, how could I have known?

He should have told me that he couldn’t swim!

I sigh, my eyes falling on the colourful fields beyond the village. All I feel is guilt, and all I get is blame.

I hadn’t even had time to cry.

“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”: Analysis

The Poem

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

By John Keats

Much I have 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.

The Message

Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, published in 1816, essentially tells the tale of his epiphanic revelation of George Chapman’s translations of the Homeric epic; although he was familiar with The Iliad and The Odyssey before this introduction, he feels as though he has never quite experienced Homer in this way before, comparing his discovery to an astronaut discovering a new planet, and to Cortez discovering the Pacific.

The Analysis

Metre & Structure

This is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet, its fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter. However, whilst the common Petrarchan sonnet is made up of an octave (8-line stanza) followed by a sestet (6-line stanza), Keats has kept this poem as one, unbroken poem, which perhaps reflects his excitement at this discovery. This poem nevertheless follows the rhyme pattern of the sonnet, with the first eight lines following an ABBA rhyme scheme, and the following six displaying a CD alternating pattern.

Line by Line

  • “Travell’d” – It’s interesting that this one of the few truncated words in the poem, and may represent how, at twenty years old, Keats hasn’t actually been anywhere yet; he’s only travelled via his beloved literature, such as the works of Homer.
  • “Realms of gold” – Keats refers to literature and the arts, illustrating the value in the written word; this is important as he sees his discovery of this particular translation as a realm of gold in itself. However, this reference can also be applied to travel and the physical “gold” encountered in Homer’s works.
  • “Western islands” – On the surface, it would seem that Keats is referring to the islands travelled by Odysseus in the Homeric epic, where he witnessed creatures such as the Cyclops and the witch, Circe. However, these Aegean islands would have been considered eastern, not western; so, in this clever reference, Keats simultaneously refers to the explorers that were setting out during the early 1800s to explore the new world and the west indies.
  • “That deep-brow’d Homer” – Keats not only explicitly relates these first eight lines with Homer through references to Apollo, as well as to bards (this was supposed to be Homer’s role during his lifetime), but uses Homer’s own writing style to describe the poet; Homer was famous for his epithets, which are short phrases accompanying a character’s name that critics believed were a way of helping Homer to remember the story, as Homer’s works would have been performed orally. Common epithets are “pallas Athene” and “cunning Odysseus”, but “deep brow’d Homer” certainly fits the mould.
  • “Yet did I never breathe” – This line is ironic as Keats includes enjambment in this line, following into the final line of the octave. It represents his own excitement at this discovery.
  • “Then” – This “then” marks the end of the octave and beginning of the sestet, but also a change in time. I only emphasise the importance of the octave and sestet as they really are quite different. In the first eight lines, Keats is telling us everything he knows about Homer. He’s telling us how he’s travelled through the works and appreciated the stories, but the final six are the actual revelation, verbalising how Keats feels once he’s read Chapman’s translation. This is emphasised by the increase in enjambment in this final sestet.
  • “Watcher of the skies” / “Eagle eyes” – Keats seems to praise himself for finding Chapman’s translation, suggesting that it was his own prowess at finding the work, but, in reality, he’s alluding to his astronaut metaphor and thus heightening the feeling of discovery in the poem (Keats didn’t discover Chapman’s translation at all; it was introduced to him by his friend Charles Cowden Clarke).
  • “Stout Cortez” – One point here is that Keats has put in another epithet, linking himself further to Homer, but the other is that he has made a slight error here; it seems that the poet confused Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, with Balboa, who discovered the Pacific from a summit in Central America. Some critics have excused this error, however, Jerome McGann suggesting that “the image is at once ludicrous and wonderful, like everything else in the poem … The poem transports us to the most forbidden world of all the Rosebud world of adolescence, barred out more securely by adult consciousness” (McGann 122). Perhaps what Keats meant by this error, then, was to suppose that Cortez could rediscover Balboa’s work, just as he, himself, experienced Chapman’s translations after many others had already discovered it.
  • “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” – This final line of the poem concludes Keats’ excitement over the translation. The caesura following “Silent”, not only disrupts the sonnet’s iambic meter, but, along with the final end stop, accentuates the wonder that Keats experience as he is rendered mute, his dialogue disrupted by the power of Chapman’s writing.

Overview

homer

My original analysis of this poem

Like all the Romantic poets, Keats liked to make his writing very personal. He isn’t talking about the external world at all in disconnection to himself; he only refers to the external as a way of describing his own feelings. It is therefore important to remember that “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” is the embodiment of Keats’ own experience; after all, it’s written in first person, and whilst this doesn’t always mean that the narrator of the poem is the poet, themselves, in this case, I think it’s fair to say that we’re listening to Keats’ own voice.

It’s a clever poem, and acts as a way of, not only embodying Keats’ thoughts, but also as a way for him to sort through them. It has been noted by Coleridge, another of the Romantics, that one of the best ways of exploring emotion is to write short poems that conform to a strict rhyme and metre structure. This, perhaps, may explain the rigidity of the poem, for, despite Keats’ excitement, he never misses a single rhyme.


Sources

McGann, Jerome J. “Sentimental Grounds: Schiller, Wordsworth, Bernardin, Shelley, Keats.” The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style. Clarendon Press, 1998, pp. 119-126.