A five-page fill-in-the-blanks handout in which your students will analyze the characters, the settings, and three stylistic features (word choice, simile, and metaphor) of Keats’s sonnet.
In the first section students will explore how Keats chose symbolically contrasting characters (imaginative poets in the octave and a rationalistic scientist and a man-of-action military explorer in the sestet).
Each character (based on real-life people) makes an amazing discovery: the poet’s long-sought “bold” English translation of Homer’s epics; the astronomer’s mathematical tracking of a planet never before seen; and the Spanish explorer’s sighting of the Pacific Ocean, the first by a European.
However, “On First Looking” stresses not their differences, but how all display the same tenacity and daring and experience the same elation and awe at the moment of their discoveries.
The second section of my handout is structured to allow your students to discover Keats’s excellent use of contrastive settings; for instance, they will discern how the octave is principally set in the Old World (Europe, particularly the Mediterranean Sea of Homer’s ancient epics), while the last four lines of the sestet focus on the New World (the Americas, especially the area around the Caribbean Sea).
The third section deals with some prominent stylistic features of Keats’s sonnet. To cite only one of the many examples which your students will work with: The last line of the octave uses “loud” while the last line of the sestet employs the contrastive word “Silent.”
Since the theme of Keats’s sonnet is lifelong exploration leading to life-changing discoveries, my handout encourages students to be both explorers and discoverers, not just in analyzing this brilliant poem but also throughout their lives. What greater purpose can literature have?
The student handout is followed by a three-page answer key, which begins on a separate page.
I have also included two appendices for teachers. The first is eight pages of additional line-by-line notes and commentary, some of which you may wish to incorporate into your class’s discussion of the poem.
Areas which are covered include the real-life incident which inspired the poem; long notes on Chapman, Homer, and the Petrarchan sonnet; pronunciation guidelines, such as Keats’s use of the British pronunciation of “been” (long e, thus sounded like “bean”) in line 3 (as a literature student, I never had a teacher pronounce the word as Keats meant); the 1781 discovery of Uranus, the “new planet” listed in line 10; and the most famous historical error in British poetry: Keats’s statement that Cortez, not Balboa, “discovered” the Pacific Ocean.
The second appendix is an additional student exercise (with answer key) on the Petrarchan sonnet rhyme scheme which Keats uses in “On First Looking.” You may decide that this would be valuable for your college-bound honors students planning to major in literature.
The student handout is suitable as an in-class activity or for homework.
Prepared by Professor William Tarvin, Ph.D., who has published many articles on literature in scholarly journals.