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Both John Keats’s ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ and Christina Rossetti’s ‘In An Artist’s Studio’ both tackle similar themes; adoration for art be it one’s own in Rossetti’s poem, or the art of another in Keats’s, with Keats admiring the translation of Homer by George Chapman. But there’s a marked difference in tone, the former poem is more appreciative of the art form, a reflection on the wonder and the “realms of gold”. The latter poem seems to be a condemnation of the artist’s ego and desires, conjuring up this Dorian Gray-esque image of being wholly consumed by one’s art, more so than this there’s also a juxtaposition between the real and the idealised, the woman as she “fills his dream”. In this sense, both poems could surely be seen as an appreciation for art, but Rossetti’s poem is much more narcissistic. Further similarities are found in the fact that both poems are Petrarchan sonnets, so stylistically they are similar too, yet very much differ in the subject matter.
In the first poem, we are first given sense of how appreciative of art Keats is by way of the aforementioned metaphor “realms of gold”, yet it is initially unclear to us whether or not this supposed journey is literal or figurative, if we don’t glance at the title that is. The sense of awe and wonderment is easily prevalent throughout, consider in lines 6 & 7 the words “serene” and the half-rhyme “demense”, there is a use of grand language throughout, elevating the arts to something divine in nature. Rossetti’s poem in comparison is also about putting art on a pedestal, but in her case, the artist is projecting his idealistic woman onto the model whom he is painting. There is simultaneously a sense of a lack of identity on the part of the model, the “nameless” girl, and this almost vampiric use of language which projects the artists desires onto her, and the “need to feed upon her face”. Again like Keats’s, the poem uses a lot of divine imagery; “saint”, “angel”, “queen”. Is this a comment on the sublime beauty one can find in hard, as Keats does with Chapman’s Homer, or is it in reference to how a man can idolise a person, or art, to unrealistic proportions? Both interpretations are surely valid, but I lean more towards the latter as the language used in Rossetti’s poem constantly backs up this idea of expectations. The Rossetti poem is told in third person plural, using the word “we”, perhaps the “we” is representative of the reader, and that we tend to come to poetry with preconceived ideas of what we want to see, most probably the “we” is the artist themselves, if one takes the poem as a critique of artistic ego in general.
Keats in his poem makes many references to classical literature and mythology, this makes sense as the poem is about admiration of art, the Homeric language compliments the thematic elements of finding new and astonishing locations, the “wild surmise” of Cortez finding the New World a metaphor for Keats having discovered this new translation of Homer. His reaction to it is almost muted with awe, “silent upon a peak in Darien” watching this new world ahead of him. It’s fitting of the impressionist nature of romantic poetry. This particular line, silent, also disrupts the iambic meter of the poem, which would again bring more attention to the idea described in this line, wonderment, so it acts as perhaps as a moment of introspection for both reader and poet alike. In contrast, while also being a sonnet, Rossetti’s poem utilises a lot of repetition, there’s the repeated refrain of “one”, or “an”, or in the final couplet “not as she is”, this is suggestive of the overall poetical theme of obsession. As in the poem, the artist is not treating the woman as a full human being with thoughts and autonomy, but as a literal canvas on which to project himself on to, the ultimate act of artistic narcissism. The woman in the poem seems to exist solely to fulfil the desires of the male poet, as we learn by the pronoun “he” in line nine.
Each poem remarks upon artistic creativity and how art, poetry and beauty can drive and obsess us, but Keats’s is much more of a simple celebration of a favoured writer, conjuring images typical of Homeric and Romantic poetry, while Christina Rossetti’s poem seems much more of a condemnation of oppressive Victorian attitudes towards woman at the time, and of the artistic process itself in a very meta-literary manner, the very title of Rossetti’s poem further evinces this: “In an Artist’s Studio”, the fact that it is unspecific might suggest the prevalence of such behaviours of objectification, as if this could happen in any studio. John Keats meanwhile seems to strive to demonstrate to the reader the sheer impact Chapman had on him by relating to us these epic images of Homeric odysseys and the visual metaphor of Cortez discovering new land. Both poems are undoubtedly about art and the artistic process and its impact, but they are ultimately thematically different.
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