On Poetry’s “Pure Serene”

Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is the first great poem by this much beloved poet, which seems only right and fitting: the poem’s impetus and core is his relation of a conscience-altering experience with poetry. Homer’s epic plain, that “wide expanse,” was, on this particular occasion, part Ancient Troy, part folio page, part single-family dwelling, Clerkenwell, Central London, in the small hours of a cool October night in 1816. Keats was in the company of his friend and former tutor, Charles Cowden Clarke. The phrase from the poem I quote in my title is Keats’s way of characterizing the atmosphere—the mental, physical, spiritual space he entered—on that momentous night, when, with Clarke, he read from George Chapman’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey till dawn, then walked home and, still enthralled, drafted this monument to what had happened to him.