If the name George Chapman rings a bell, it is likely because you once read John Keats’s 1816 sonnet, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer,” which describes the Romantic poet’s experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer for the first time. I have spent the past eight months conducting research for the first full-length biography of Chapman (ca. 1559-1634), an Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright and poet who also produced the first complete English translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, printed in installments between 1598 and 1616.
Although I’ve written about Chapman’s Homer several times, I’ve never given much thought to Keats’ poem as anything more than a youthful rhapsody on Chapman’s translation, a work whose archaic, often rough style appealed to the 21-year-old Keats, who longed to be “teased out of thought” by the austere beauty of Greek antiquity.
Keats likens the feeling of reading Chapman’s Homer to two modes of discovery that revolutionized how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europeans understood their place in the universe: the sensation that an astronomer or “watcher of the skies” feels when “a new planet swims into his ken,” and the “wild surmise” or silence-inducing awe that attended upon the first European glimpse at the Pacific Ocean—a feat accomplished not by “stout Cortez,” as Keats has it, but rather by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1519. Both sensations arise out of our confrontation with the immensity of the cosmos and our accompanying recognition of the diminutiveness or insignificance of humankind in that cosmos. Both are, in the familiar literary-critical parlance of Keats’s day, experiences of the sublime: of the sudden impression of terror or wonder that results from the “great extreme of dimension” as well as from the “infinite divisibility of matter.”1
To Keats, the “wide expanse” of Chapman’s Homer, which speaks out “loud and bold” in its long and jangling fourteeners, offers a series of lessons in the poetic sublime. Both the Iliad and Odyssey are full of moments in which humans are dwarfed—in power, in stature, or in understanding—by the Olympian gods or by colossal natural forces such as the sea. In Book 15 of the Iliad, for instance, Apollo wantonly destroys a wall constructed by the Achaean troops as easily as a child smashes a sandcastle. In Chapman’s translation:
And then, as he had chok’t their dike, he tumbl’d downe their wall.
And looke how easily any boy, upon the sea-eb’d shore,
Makes with a little sand a toy, and cares for it no more;
But as he raisd it childishly, so in his wanton vaine,
Both with his hands and feet, he puls, and spurnes it downe againe.2
Chapman singles out for the highest praise this and other Homeric similes for their jarring juxtapositions, comparisons that yoke the most familiar and prosaic experiences with the terror of a universe at once alien and hostile: “A simile from how low things it may be taken,” Chapman’s marginal note reads, “to expresse the highest” (Whole Works, Iliads, sig. T2v).
The above comment is one of several clues that Chapman’s interpretations of Homeric epic are shaped by the Περì Ὕψους [=Peri Hypsous, On Height], a 1st-century CE Greek poetic treatise known in English as On the Sublime, attributed widely but falsely to Longinus. Although the Peri Hypsous was printed in Basel in 1544 by Francisco Robortello, with successive editions of the work printed in 1555 and 1569, it made little impression on English and European poets until the last quarter of the seventeenth century, when Nicolas Boileau produced (in 1674) a widely-read French translation. Chapman is an exception to this rule. In the dedicatory epistle to his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, he cites Longinus directly, condemning his “censure” of the Odyssey as inferior to the Iliad, and Chapman’s extensive commentaries on both poems reveal a complex engagement with Longinian concepts of sublimity (or “height”) as well as with bathos, or depth (Whole Works, Odysses, sig. A4r).
Keats’s sonnet on Chapman’s Homer implicitly acknowledges the translations as early specimens of the Romantic sublime, an aesthetic category also rooted for Keats in the paradigmatic Renaissance activities of geographical and astronomical discovery. His comparison between reading Chapman’s Homer on the one hand, and gazing at the distant horizon of the Pacific or at remote planets as viewed through the earliest telescopes on the other, is especially fitting given that in his 1616 preface to the reader, Chapman identifies two men, the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot (ca. 1560-1621), and the globemaker and geographer Robert Hues (1553-1632), as longstanding friends who assisted the translator through their “confest conference touching Homer” (Whole Works, Iliads, sig. A3v).
Chapman probably met both Harriot and Hues at Oxford in the late 1570s, when both of the latter men were students at St. Mary Hall and Chapman likely also at Oxford at that time, although he appears never to have matriculated or taken a degree. Hues’s popular treatise on the use of celestial and terrestrial globes and Harriot’s telescopic observations provide new and tangible evidence of the “wide expanse” of a universe that might have seemed, to early seventeenth-century eyes, to be expanding by leaps and bounds as new planetary bodies and vast oceans discovered themselves to view. It is already well known that the scientific and geographical investigations of Harriot and Hues were instrumental to the explorers of the late Elizabethan period. Harriot, who would later produce the first recorded drawings of the moon based on telescopic observations, was a member of the 1585 expedition to Roanoke, funded by Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), while Hues accompanied the explorer Thomas Cavendish (1560-1592) on at least one and possibly two circumnavigations of the globe in the late 1580s and early 1590s.
As a poet and translator, Chapman may seem to stand at a distance from the active, intrepid world of the Elizabethan explorers. But my research into Chapman while at the Folger keeps pointing me back towards Harriot, Hues, and above all Richard Hakluyt (1553-1616)—towards his writings, his collaborators, and his colonial enterprises. Chapman’s self-confessed debt to Harriot and Hues suggests that his earliest and most knowledgeable audience for his translations of Homer included mathematical and geographical practitioners, and it may also suggest that Chapman regarded his translations of Homer as assisting in navigation and in colonial enterprise, either by divulging long-lost “realms of gold” in contemporary versions of the Odyssean island paradises inhabited by Circe, Calypso, and Alcinous, or by offering more pragmatic advice for adventurers and sailors.
I end my year at the Folger with the hypothesis that Chapman’s life and literary corpus reveal an enduring engagement with exploration and colonization. This engagement may have begun at Oxford in the late 1570s, when Hakluyt was teaching geography at Christ Church while Hues, Harriot, and probably Chapman were students there; it continues in Paris during the 1580s, when Hakluyt served as chaplain to Sir Edward Stafford, the English ambassador to Paris, accompanied by a diplomatic train which certainly included Chapman’s cousin, the translator Edward Grimeston, and which may also have included Chapman himself.
It persists in Chapman’s later years, when Chapman petitioned, in 1618, for employment with the East India Company, a request permitted to him because his elder brother, Thomas Chapman, was until his death in that same year a shareholder in the company. Although it is not clear whether Chapman ever gained the employment he sought, the minutes and other records of both the East India and Virginia Companies show the poet and his extended family engaged throughout the late 1610s and 1620s in various financial negotiations with both companies. They show several of Chapman’s possible kin traveling to places as far-flung as Aleppo and Jamestown, Virginia, and they show the poet and several of his family members closely linked through financial dealings as well as through marriage with the family of the adventurer and translator John Pory (1572-1636), whose 1600 translation of Leo Africanus’s A Geographical Historie of Africa was produced at Hakluyt’s instigation.
My discoveries at the Folger encourage a reappraisal of Chapman as more closely intricated with English colonial ventures than has been previously assumed. They also encourage me to think that Chapman was the author of the first commendatory poem prefaced to the second, expanded edition of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (1599-1600), a decastich, or ten-line poem, in Greek, addressed ΕΙΣ Α᾽ΠΟΔΗΜΙΑΣ ΒΡΕΤΤΑΤΩΝ, “To the British Wanderer,” Richard (‘ΡΙΧΑΡΔΟΥ᾽) Hakluyt, wrought in Achaian, or Homeric Greek.
Just one year before the publication of Hakluyt’s monumental work, Chapman had brought out the first two installments of his Homeric translations, Seaven Bookes of the Iliad and Achilles Shield. The poem to Hakluyt turns the Principal Navigations into a companion volume to Chapman’s Homer—an alternate route, as it were, to those “western islands” imagined by Keats, “Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.”
- Edmund Burke, A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (London, 1787), Sect. VII, p. 128.
- The Whole Works of Homer, trans. George Chapman. London: Nathaniell Butter, 1616, sig. T2v. Folger Shakespeare Library STC 13624.5 Folio.
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