The wild surmise

Project Gutenberg has had a spate of old histories of the New World, which I can't get enough of.  Every time I read a reference to Darien I hear this Keats sonnet in my head:
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-brow'd 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.
The poem refers to an exciting translation of Homer by George Chapman.  The last few lines stick in a lot of heads, it seems; the literary world is stuffed with references to them.  G.K. Chesterton worked them into a drinking song, The Logical Vegetarian:
I am silent in the club,
I am silent in the pub.,
I am silent on a bally peak in Darien;
For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

No more the milk of cows
Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian
I will stick to port and sherry,
For they are so very, very,
So very, very, very, Vegetarian.
Clovis Sangrail freezes out a fellow trying to cadge a favor in Saki's "The Talking-Out of Tarrington":
The next moment the overtures of an affably disposed gentleman were being received by Clovis with a "silent-upon-a-peak-in-Darien" stare which denoted an absence of all previous acquaintance with the object scrutinized.
Vladimir Nabakov famously incorporated a baseball-themed pun on the sonnet's title into Pale Fire:  "Red Sox Beat Yanks 5–4 On Chapman's Homer."

Ted Davis explained that baseball has been around forever, since God made the whole world in the big inning, then Eve stole first, and Adam second, after which they were both thrown out.  He then wrote "On First, Looking into Chapman's Homer":
Or like stout Mantle, when with eagle eyes
He star’d out at the distant fence — and then
Watch’d his ball just rise and rise and rise —
Silent, above a park in Washington.
A Punch sketch from 1922 recounts a student's attempt to recite the poem.  He gives "coffee-colored" for "deep-brow'd Homer," and ends with "Or like fat Cortez, when with staring eyes/He swims in the Pacific. . . " to the disgust of his professor, who predicts his enormous success as a Philistine in public life.


Grim said...

Homer has produced quite a few decent English translations. My favorite is the Fitzgerald, but the Pope translation also produced new poems in its honor.

douglas said...


Not having heard of the "peak in Darien", I set out via google to learn.
Came across this wonderful telling of the story of Balboa and Darien, and in this book and another, 79 more stories. If they are this well written, I may read them all.

Thanks, Tex!

Texan99 said...

Yes, Keats mixed up Cortez and Balboa, but Balboa wouldn't scanned. The stories of this period really are ripsnorters and worth reading.

Lars Walker said...

Chesterton and Saki! I wildly surmise this will be a good day.