This learning tool consists of three parts. First there is a four-page fill-in-the-blanks handout for your students in which they will analyze “On First Looking” line-by-line and see how each fits into the cause-effect, octave-sestet structure of the sonnet.
Through this analysis your students will see the intricacy that Keats has packed into this fourteen-line poem. For instance, the title of the poem suggests that it will deal with reading, but its first three lines focus on the speaker as a traveler, and not just a person who journeys from place to place, but, line 4 states, a time-traveler, one who can go back in time to when a mythological god was worshipped. Only in line 5 does it become apparent that this avid tourist has done no physical traveling at all except through reading books, so Keats has created an exciting “tour de force” (pardon the pun) by subtly weaving back to the title of his sonnet.
I find that such close follow-every-twist reading of “On First Looking” better involves students in the poem than the usual approach taken in teaching the first fives lines of the poem: The teacher informs the students that here Keats is metaphorically comparing reading to traveling. Such a flat dictum denies students the joy of exploration and discovery, which by the way are the two major themes of Keats’s sonnet.
My handout promotes such close line-by-line analysis of the rest of the octave and all of the sestet (including its two great similes) of “On First Looking.”
Following this handout, there is a two-page answer key, which begins on a separate page.
The third and final part of the “On First Looking” project contains eight pages of additional notes and commentary, some of which you may wish to incorporate into your class’s discussion of the poem. Areas which are covered include its composition and publication; the incident which inspired the poem; additional details on Chapman and Homer, including why the latter is called “deep-brow’d” (6); the Petrarchan sonnet; pronunciation guidelines, such as that Keats used the British pronunciation of “been” (long e, thus sounded like “bean”) in line 3; the 1781 discovery of Uranus, the “new planet” listed in line 10; and the most famous historical error in British poetry where Keats wrote that Cortez, not Balboa, “discovered” the Pacific Ocean.
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.