Cortez or Balboa? A Critical Note


When I first encountered “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” as a freshman in college, I did not know Hernando Cortez from Rocky Balboa, much less Vasco Núñez de Balboa, so I did not think there was anything amiss; I only vaguely remembered their names as explorers. Now, as a third-year PhD student, I’m trained to find fault, to discover controversy, to push past enjoyment into critique. So I was both surprised and unsurprised to discover, regarding the 11th line, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s historic footnote in Palgraves’ The Golden Treasury that, “History requires here Balboa” (qtd. in Rzepka 36).

An important question to ask is whether Keats actually meant Cortez or not. The problem is that, from a strictly historical perspective, Tennyson was right. As the Norton Anthology notes, “It was Balboa, not Cortez, who caught his first sight of the Pacific from the heights of Darien, in Panama…”. But it errs, perhaps, in going on to say, “…but none of Keat’s contemporaries noticed the error” (qtd. in Rzepka 35). Didn’t they? C.V. Wicker claims that if there were an error of this degree, surely an editor as careful as Leigh Hunt would have caught the mistake (Rzepka 37-38).

It’s possible, of course, that Keats simply did not care about historical accuracy, and by extension, neither did his contemporaries. If so, then Woodring was probably right in paraphrasing Keats this way: “Then i felt like an astronomer, or like Cortez–or Balboa, or somebody like that” (qtd. in Rzepka 36).

But this seems unlikely. Isn’t it possible, as Rzepka suggests, that Keats was up to something else entirely?

We might be tempted to assume that line 11 is a kind of reiteration of line 10, “then felt I like some watcher of the skies, when a new planet swims into his ken,” which would necessitate that any explorer who “stared at the Pacific” was, in fact, the first one there. But Rzepka follows Wicker in claiming that, in fact, line 11 introduces a new idea entirely: instead of depicting the poet as a first explorer, like Balboa, he deliberately chose Cortez as a way to frame his belated discovery of Homer, through Chapman (Rzepka 44). In other words, Balboa is to Cortez as Chapman is to (the depicted) Keats.

This point of view makes a great deal of sense, especially when we juxtapose it with the idea of “sight-wonder” advanced by MacMaster and Sypniewski, who draw attention to the different ways that Keat’s Cortez and his men experience wonder in the poem. In the final lines, Keats, they point out, is likely thinking of Chapman’s depiction of Achilles: “In the same way, Achilles marveled upon seeing godlike Priam/and the others marveled, too, and they looked at one another” (26). If this is what Keats had in mind, line 11 makes even more sense: Cortez, the leader, sees first, experiencing wonder, and his men experience a kind of secondhand wonder in seeing Cortez’s seeing. So it is with Keats as Chapman opens Homer to him.

“History requires here Balboa,” Tennyson wrote. But can history really require anything of poetry? In other words, is it the responsibility of poetry to accurately reflect history?

I cannot help but think of the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. If all of the Bible is to be read literally, then we have a strange history indeed, and one that does not seem to square, in places, with the best science we have. But if the Bible is to be read according to genre, where poetry is interpreted differently from history, and if the first few chapters of Genesis are poetry, we have a different way of knowing. Perhaps poetry takes liberty with details in order to strike at universal verities. If this last statement is true, then poetry and history are very different enterprises. Not that poetry need be ahistorical, or historically inaccurate. I only suggest that we cannot, and should not, hold poetry and history to the same standards.

At worst, much of the critique of line 11 seems to boil down to unfortunate class-based criticism, a kind of latter-day anti-Stratfordianism, claiming that Keats would have been more susceptible to these kinds of mistakes because of deficiencies in his formal education. Perhaps, perhaps not. It seems unlikely that if Jones is correct that Keats references Milton in the poem, and Pollack-Pelzner is correct that he references Dante, that the poet would be ignorant of so critical a figure in the sonnet. Paul McNally considers the poem to be a “unified rhetorical figure,” which, if he is right, would occlude any mistake of this magnitude (533).

In any case, thank God, the very best formal education is not a necessary condition for wonder. Keats was for me what Chapman was for Keats: an introduction to another world. In the case of Keats, it was the world of Homer; in my case, it was the world of Romantic poetry. If Keats was wrong about Cortez, very well; I still retain the wonder of my youth, when in ignorance I did not note the difference, and my gratitude to Keats persists. If Keats was right about Cortez, and chose him deliberately, I am permitted, in my early middle age, to wonder again, and I am doubly grateful.

Works Cited

Jones, Frederick L. “Keats’s Sonnet on Chapman’s Homer.” Keats-Shelley Journal 1 (Jan 1952): 71-72. Web.

MacMaster, Anne C. and Holly M. Sypniewski. “Interpolation as Inspiration: ‘Sight-Wonder’ in Keats, Chapman, and Homer.” Keats-Shelley Journal 58 (2009): 25-31. Web.

McNally, Paul. “Keats and the Rhetoric of Association: On Looking into the Chapman’s Homer Sonnet.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 79.4 (Oct 1980): 530-540. Web.

Pollack-Pelzner, Daniel. “Revisionary Company: Keats, Homer, and Dante in the Chapman Sonnet.” Keats-Shelley Journal 56 (2007): 39-49. Web.

Rzepka, Charles J. “‘Cortez: Or Balboa, or Something Like That’: Form, Fact, and Forgetting in Keats’s ‘Chapman’s Homer’ Sonnet.” Keats-Shelley Journal 51 (2002): 35-75. Web.

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