On the Secondary Source That Changed My Approach to Teaching Keats

In 2002, Charles Rzepka published a paper that brings critical attention to the footnote usually attached to John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Keats’s mentor Charles Cowden Clarke introduced him to Homer in the robust translation of the Elizabethan poet George Chapman. They read through the night, and Keats walked home at dawn. This sonnet reached Clarke by the ten o’clock mail that same morning. It was Balboa, not Cortez, who caught first sight of the Pacific from the heights of Darien, in Panama, but none of Keats’s contemporaries noticed the error.

Rzepka quotes the Norton Anthology’s 7th edition. I’ve got the 9th handy: it says essentially the same thing. Interestingly, when I taught the poem two weeks ago with reference to Rzepka’s paper, one of my students noted that her 8th edition of Norton mentions that the error is contested. It mentions this in the very footnote that makes the error known. Why did Norton drop this equivocation in the 9th?

In his paper[1] Rzepka hones in on the supposed mistake, Cortez for Balboa, and proceeds to argue thoroughly and convincingly that it matters not whether Keats was mistaken. What matters is whether or not the poet meant to be mistaken, and if so why.

I admire many things about this paper, not least of which is the extreme practicality of its form and subject. It is pragmatic, accessible and applicable not just to the poem, or to Keats’s biography, or for readers, critics, and editors, but for our pedagogies. Rzepka has written a paper for teachers. That is, for us.

Why does it feel so singular to read a rigorous article that takes into account scholarly tradition, literary and cultural history, as well as critical debates, and still speaks for the right now? It’s not that the paper employs some presentism or anachronistic import about proto-neuro-psycho-something-or-other. It doesn’t claim to discuss Truth or Beauty or Nature or Man. No such thing. Rzepka’s paper asks that we entertain the idea that:

“Once we [stop reading “Cortez” as a mistake], we will see that the Darien tableau in which Keats has placed his belated conquistador brilliantly underscores the poignant theme, announced in the very title of his sonnet, of the belatedness of the poet’s own sublime ambitions” (39).

It’s a paper about the idea of interpretation, which offers an interpretation of Keats’s interpretive moves. Rzepka says that grappling with this issue “deserves to be taken seriously by every editor of Keats and every student of the ‘Chapman’s Homer’ sonnet” (38). It’s a paper you can take to class with you. And I will, and did.

As the final class in a week of lectures on Romantic Aesthetics, I taught the sonnet with these questions in mind:

Once your perception of an event or text is reoriented, can you ever see the text without some part of that perceptual shift remaining? Even if you refuse the new information, or even refuse to believe the shift occurred? Is Cortez always a mistake, even if you choose not to think so?

I had the intention of having the class interpret their interpretations, or to re-interpret the usual, received interpretations, of Keats’s sonnet and some of the well-known, often taught Odes. I am sure most of them read “Ode to a Grecian Urn” in high school or first year.

Over the course of the class I gave away biographical hints about Keats and historical clues about the Romantic period, something like this:

How would your perception of “Chapman’s Homer” change if you knew the following:

  • Keats’s habits of study at Enfield were “most orderly,” according to Clarke, “[Keats] must have…exhausted the school library, which consisted principally of abridgements of all the voyages and travels of any note” (Rzepka 140).
  • Keats owned the book in which Bonnycastle describes Herschel’s original discovery of Uranus (Andrew Motion, Keats, 1997).
  • Keats once fought a butcher’s boy for bullying a kitten (Andrew Motion, Keats, 1997).

And this culminated in putting them into groups and passing out excerpts from Keats’s letters. Each group had to read their poem through the excerpt; they had to bring the biographical to bear on the poem in a way that would change the class’ perception of the poem.

It was totally illuminating—such a storm of brains! And the students’ realization that their interpretive power could be used to read the poems charitably or not, seemed to give their efforts that critical self-consciousness that Keats, himself, so utterly possessed.

[1] Charles Rzepka, “Cortez: Or Balboa, or Somebody like That”: Form, Fact, and Forgetting in Keats’s ‘Chapman’s Homer’ Sonnet, in Keats-Shelley Journal. 51. (2002): 35-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30213306