Chapman’s Homer and British cultural history

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson 1 Comment

Talking to my friend Tom recently about the ‘Troy’ exhibition at the British Museum we came to discussing George Chapman’s Homer (Iliad (1611) and Odyssey (1615) – you can download a copy here), the first full English translations of these epic poems. The exhibition includes a first edition of this monumental work.

George Chapman (1559 – 1634) was, at the very least, an associate of William Shakespeare; you can’t help wondering if they discussed or even collaborated on the project of translating these two epic poems, although the relationship between the two is cloudy and, perhaps, was fraught? Is the ‘rival poet’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets (esp. sonnet 86) George Chapman? This theory first appeared in print in 1874 in a text by William Minto, and many others have reproduced this idea since. Here is Shakespeare’s sonnet in a slightly modernised form.



Was it the proud full sail of his great verse,

Bound for the prize of all too precious you,

That did my ripe thoughts in my brain inhearse,

Making their tomb the womb wherein they grew?

Was it his spirit, by spirits taught to write

Above a mortal pitch, that struck me dead?

No, neither he, nor his compeers by night

Giving him aid, my verse astonished.

He, nor that affable familiar ghost

Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,

As victors of my silence cannot boast;

I was not sick of any fear from thence:

But when your countenance filled up his line,

Then lacked I matter; that enfeebled mine.


[1609 Quarto Version

WAs it the proud full ſaile of his great verſe,

Bound for the prize of (all to precious) you,

That did my ripe thoughts in my braine inhearce,

Making their tombe the wombe wherein they grew?

Was it his ſpirit,by ſpirits taught to write,

Aboue a mortall pitch,that ſtruck me dead ?

No,neither he,nor his compiers by night

Giuing him ayde,my verſe aſtoniſhed.

He nor that affable familiar ghoſt

Which nightly gulls him with intelligence,

As victors of my ſilence cannot boaſt,

I was not ſick of any feare from thence.

But when your countinance fild vp his line,

Then lackt I matter, that infeebled mine.]


It is a plausible theory – Chapman’s Homer is quite wonderful, an amazing achievement. Don’t take my word for it; ask Keats. He wrote a sonnet (in October 1816) praising it!


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.

(You can see Keat’s manuscript here)


But I am digressing. The point I was trying to get to was that Chapman’s Homer is by no means the first English language text that mentions Troy or is influenced by Homer. The myths of the fall of Troy, its causes and consequences, are deeply embedded in British literature, preceding Chapman (and possibly also suggesting to Chapman the importance of his task) by at least a few centuries. Here are the first lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poem about the court of King Arthur and the knights of the round table, first written down in c.1400 (I’m using Tolkien’s translation but various versions are available from here):

When the siege and assault had ceased at Troy, and the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes, the traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned was tried for his treachery, the most true upon earth – it was Aeneas the noble and his renowned kindred who then laid under them lands, and lords became of well-nigh all the wealth in the Western Lands.  

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1975). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ; [and], Pearl ; and, Sir Orfeo. London, Allen and Unwin. (p. 14)


This opening verse leads on to describe the founding of ‘fair Britain’ by Brutus, and the point here is that, at least according to this myth, the origin of the kingdom of Britain has its roots in the battle of Troy.

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