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Unlike poets with more traditional literary backgrounds – the Cambridge-educated Byron, for example – John Keats trained in medicine, and knew Latin, but not Greek. This translation inspired his sonnet ‘On First Looking in to Chapman’s Homer’.
Western tradition holds that the epic poems The Iliad and Odyssey were written down by a Greek poet called Homer, they likely arise out of a more complex oral tradition. Between 1614 and 34, George Chapman produced personal responses, rather than word-for-word translations. This book, The Odyssey, is the story of the hero known as Odysseus to the Greeks, and Ulysses to the Romans.
Between 1614 and 1634. This was an important time for the status of English as a literary language – the King James Bible was published in 1611.
Thomas Alsager, a Times journalist, lent his copy to Leigh Hunt, who lent it to Keats’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke. In Recollections of Writers (1878), Clarke describes it as a ‘beautiful copy of the folio edition’; all that he otherwise specifies is that it is an ‘old’ one, earlier than Richard Hooper’s of 1857.
When they read it together, probably on 25 October 1816, Clarke recalled that Keats responded with ‘one of his delighted stares’ to a description of the shipwrecked hero Ulysses ‘The sea had soak’d his heart through’.
Keats went home in the early hours, and had his sonnet in response – one of the most famous in English – delivered to Clarke by ten o’clock the next morning; it was printed in Leigh Hunt’s Examiner that December. Clarke also compares Keats’s later Endymion (1818) to Chapman’s ‘Hymn to Pan’.
The Romantic period was one of growing interest in ancient Greece. Stephen Hebron explores how this shaped the subject matter and forms of the era’s poets.
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