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Scarcity and Poetic Election in Two Sonnets of John Keats
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Scarcity and Poetic Election in Two Sonnets of John Keats

In Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” the speaker experiences a great opening or expansion of his resources. He has had a previous history, he tells us, of laboriously gathering wisdom piece by piece:

Much have I travelled 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. 1

This traveling in the realms of gold refers to reading (think of the gilt edges of culturally privileged books), but it will also remind us of Homer’s hero, Odysseus, whose travels were the very type of labor. The speaker of the sonnet is engaged in a struggle against his own ignorance and inexperience. The sonnet will oppose that ignorance to an abundant knowledge, and access to this knowledge will be a function, not of plodding labor, but of a strange kind of ethical accident. By “ethical” I mean a certain set of choices the speaker makes as to how to manage his own mind, in an environment where meanings are not to be found everywhere — where it is possible to read and not understand (“Yet did I never breathe its pure serene”). These choices are of the right models (Shakespeare, Chapman, Homer) and the right mode of attention — not the (exotic but tedious) activity of the first lines, but the awesome passivity of the last. By “accident” I mean that the new expansion or opening seems a free gift from the world to the poet, and does not seem to depend directly on the labor of wandering struggle, but on being in the right place at the moment when the truth chooses to emerge (Chapman speaks, the new planet swims, the Pacific appears).

Keats is implicitly exploring the issue of poetic vocation in this sonnet. His exploration is governed by these two economies, the initial laboring and the new discovery or opening-out. Poetic vocation has to be discussed in terms of these economies because it takes its place within a formation of what Sartre called scarcity. 2 Not everyone can be a poet, and not every poet can be a successful one — furthermore, when a person [End Page 103] becomes a poet (and being a poet is for Keats a matter of becoming), not all of him can follow where poetry leads. The process of poetic election demands some reckoning with the problem of scarcity. 3 I want to investigate Keats’s reckonings in the Chapman’s Homer sonnet and then compare them to another confrontation of what I think is the same problem, in a sonnet of two years later, “When I Have Fears.”

“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” does the work of establishing the legitimacy of a certain kind of learning. It uses an accumulative, tripartite simile whose explosive poetic effect is adequate to the sublimity it describes. 4 When the sonnet makes the reader feel he is in the presence of something new and great, it occurs to the reader that this feeling is itself the very subject of the sonnet. Thus the poem poses the question, whether its own poetic spell is of the same order as that spell which it discovers in the reading of Chapman’s Homer and in the two commensurate moments which share the simile.

The simile (one thing is like something else) reaches across time, because it celebrates the transhistorical intelligibility of Homer, and across categories: Chapman’s achievement in the art of verse translation is compared with Cortes’s navigations and then with an astronomer’s discovery. As early as Plato’s Ion, poetry has been understood as one techne which subsumes every other, so that Homer’s encyclopedic inclusiveness of the details of such diverse crafts as shipbuilding, weaving, and prophecy, promises an ordered human world. For Keats to assemble equally diverse kinds of success inside the small bounds of the sonnet avows a continuity with the Homeric poem to which he pays tribute. But the vocations Keats mentions in the sonnet — astronomy and sailing — bear inside their routine practice the possibility of revolutionary...