On First Looking at a Keats Poem
By Miss Leithart
I remember a point in time at St. John’s, where I spent most of my summer attending the Graduate Institute, when I felt as if I had entered what some great thinkers have termed the “Great Conversation.” Having finished the last book of Homer’s Iliad, I was riding the waves of accomplishment when someone dear to me suggested I read John Keats’ poem “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” I did, and I think I understood him when he wrote:
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.
These poetic lines gave me both humility and rejoicing. I was humbled to be experiencing through written words what so many have in the past. I rejoiced at having read the work in its entirety and having enjoyed it. Keats felt similarly when he finished the Iliad. Something is discovered, something likened to the discovery of uncharted lands, and the conversation that spans the centuries begins.
This summer, I read more books than I ever did in two semesters in college. Surrounded by red brick colonial edifices and lush foliage, I turned page after page of some of the greatest works written in the Western tradition. It was marvelous! I finally became acquainted with Herodotus, Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, and was briefly introduced to Aristotle. They’re a lively bunch, I might add. Though I spent much of my time spilling over pages of ancient Greek texts, what some might automatically define as leisurely, my mind was not yet engaged in contemplation. I was too concerned with internalizing the plots, differentiating between who’s who, and thinking of a provocative opening question for the discussions. I was learning to be sure, but I was not allowing the text to marinade and enrich my life. Arguably, Greek tragedy does not easily lend itself to thoughts of the heavens, but once I stepped back from rigor, themes of loyalty, integrity, and dignity shone like lights in the darkness. Keats showed me how.
This summer has redirected my sensibilities in a way. Like Miss Clevenger, I too am trying to memorize more poetry. Because I spent so much time in ancient Greek history, I now want to dive into Biblical history to learn more about the small kingdom of Israel, which preserved Scripture despite exile and hardship. I’ve been listening to classical music more regularly. Why am I doing all of this? Our God created beauty, is beauty, and I simply want to attach my body and soul to what is beautiful in order to love the Truth all the more.