Posted inMu, Other Teachings

The Unfamiliar Familiar: Part 3 of 6

April 5, 2015

This kind of disbanding of an assumption—whether of something as fundamental as our sense of self, or merely of a preconception about a classical poet—can bring about a radical new openness.

poppy-186635_1280 Click to read The Unfamiliar Familiar Part 1 and Part 2.

In John Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the poet dramatizes a sudden expansion of view. Keats had never learned Greek and did not like Pope’s versions of the classics, but one evening in a friend’s house he was presented with a volume of the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman’s translation of Homer. He was captivated by it, and when his friend came down to breakfast the next day, he found the superb sonnet waiting on the table. It ends with these lines:

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.

In Chapman’s earthy, energetic lines, Keats felt that at last he could taste Homer’s world for himself. His literary imagination was ignited and expanded: it was like finding a whole new ocean. He had thought he knew what he was missing in Homer; now he finds that he was wrong and his world is enriched and broadened.

This kind of disbanding of an assumption—whether of something as fundamental as our sense of self, or merely of a preconception about a classical poet—can bring about a radical new openness.

Indeed, Keats’s poem is not about Homer, or Chapman, but precisely about the defamiliarizing effect of his all-night reading. It celebrates the epiphanic quality art can have when it strips us of our limited views, of what we think we know.

Nor do age and tradition dull this power. Even Homer’s ink, at the base of the Western canon, remains wet. When the war-horses munch their barley at night on the plains of Troy, awaiting dawn on the eve of battle, and catch a glow from the Greek campfires, it’s as if we see horses stir from hoof to hoof in firelight for the first time. Homer’s works may be among the oldest European texts, but they are also the youngest. Everything seems new-minted. They depict a remote world; yet Homer makes it close, and in doing so he revivifies our appreciation of our own world, and helps us to see it too as if for the first time.

This process is enacted with the poet’s epic similes. Again and again he interrupts the action of, say, a battle scene, to bring us into the peacetime world of the Mycenean countryside. In a sense poetic metaphor and simile are always a matter of defamiliarization. When two phenomena are brought together by unexpected likeness, both are “made strange.” In Homer’s famous simile for the storming of the Achaean troops from their ships before Troy—likened to the swarming of bees—the ordinary local event of bees moving from one home to another is given an epic cast, which it seems to truly deserve. At the same time the great human cataclysm—the loss of a city—is presented as part of a natural cycle. Both sides of the simile are at once defamiliarized, and simultaneously redeemed and exalted.

Which also folds back into Buddha’s investigation of the self and non-self: the defamiliarizing of a human experience such as loss creates the possibility of distance from it, and thus also from the self to whom we assume it pertains.

Click here to read Part 4 of the The Unfamiliar Familiar.


By Henry Shukman, originally published in Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2014

Image: Poppy, by Body-n-Care, CC0 Public Domain, from
Featured Image: Lady Luna, by Hartwig HKD, CC BY-ND 2.0.

footer support banner image

Support Mountain Cloud

You can show your gratitude for Mountain Cloud events, retreats, podcasts and other teachings by making a one-time gift, or by becoming a supporting member.

Donate to Mountain Cloud Become a Member