I have a problem with prominent works of art that are incorrect, especially when these works of art are significant–pieces of literature or artwork to be lauded throughout the ages. I have a bigger problem when I find out that the author, painter, or creator of said artwork knew before the “unvailing.” John Keats, a notable, English poet, wrote a poem in 1816, entitled, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” This work is genius, an allusional-masterpiece, an often-quoted classic. On the other hand, it’s plagued with an error by the author; one who thought it best by ignoring historical inaccuracies.
If anyone is qualified to make judgement on English literate, John Middleton Murray is that man. Murray published dozens of books and thousands of articles critiquing literature, social issues, politics, and religion. Murray said that “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is “one of the finest sonnets in the English Language.” How unfortunate that this poem, one that is a prime example of how a great works of art can wield emotional power–an ability to inspire epiphanies in its beholder–is unenjoyable to me because I cannot get over the gross injustice to history.
Below is the poem, take a moment to read it. Can you spot the historical error?
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d 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.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
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.
I take back what I said earlier. I can enjoy this poem, but I still have the nagging reminder in the back of my head.
If you were unable to pick out the historical inaccuracy, it was the line ” Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star’d at the Pacific.” The events of the poem, the finding of the Pacific Ocean, of the “new planet” Uranus (the first planet unknown to astronomers of that era), and the Panama providence “Darien” are all are first. The implied meaning of the line regarding “Cortez” is that Hernán Cortés was the first European to lay eyes on the Pacific; however, this is not the case.
As it turns out, Keats had just finished reading William Robertson’s History of America, and in his excitement to use imagery from this novel, he incorrectly labeled Hernán Cortés as the founder of the Pacific. The first European expedition that came to the Pacific was led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa. In 1513, by way of the Isthmus of Panama, Balboa and his men embarked into the Pacific Ocean, naming it the South Sea. (In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan would rename the South Sea the Pacific Ocean–due to its calm waters.)
In a poetic analysis by the City University of New York, they note the inaccuracy.
Thankfully, they do not leave it to that. In an in-depth breakdown, the site further ask–a question that I think most important–“does Keats’s error in identifying Cortez as discovering the ocean detract significantly from this poem?” I don’t know that I’d say it did “significantly,” but it did take some of the luster out of it for me.
What makes matters worse is that before this poem was published, Keats was corrected and decided that ignoring historical inaccuracies was better for his poem. Charles Cowden Clarke, an educator and friend of Keats, was present when John Keats wrote “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” He immediately noticed the historical inaccuracy and corrected Keats, however, Keats left the poem as it was. As much as I dislike using Wikipedia as a source, the site has an explanation that tells it how it is…
“John Keats simply remembered the image, rather than the actual historical facts. Charles Clarke noticed the error immediately, but Keats chose to leave it in, presumably because historical accuracy would have necessitated an unwanted extra syllable in the line.”
I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below. In what other works of art have you noticed the ongoing theme of ignoring historical inaccuracies?