An American Life
Chapter 1. Panama, 1985
They remain among the most memorable lines in the British literary tradition.
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.
Joseph Warren Beach explained the sonnet’s closing quatrain.1 Here, John Keats had fashioned the solid blocks of history upon which he imagined the airy fabric of his fancy. An ever-precocious reader moved to tears by passages of Shakespeare, Keats had encountered the Reverend William Robertson’s ← 33 | 34 → description of the discovery of the Pacific Ocean in his History of America while a student at Enfield Academy between 1803 and 1811. “When, with infinite toil, they had climbed up the greater part of that steep ascent,” Robertson had written during the early years of the American Revolution, “Balboa commanded his men to halt, and advanced alone to the summit, that he might be the first who should...
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