Connecting the historical and literary dots on September 25

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one gets started a long way from London and a long time ago.

510 years ago to be exact. September 25th, 1513. And 5,262 miles from London.

And that’s by way of introducing the Spanish explorer and conquistador Vasco Nunez de Balboa. And where is he on this day, September 25th, 1513 – he’s on a peak in Darien in Panama. From up there he can see something that no European has ever seen: the Pacific Ocean.

Ok, some context. Christopher Columbus and the other Spanish explorers wanted to get to what they called the Indies, the lands of China,  Japan and India. They were convinced that they could get to Asia by sailing west.  They thought the distance between Europe and the eastern shore of Asia was short. Their idea was go west to China, they thought that was the fast way to get there, that Asia was closer westward than eastward.

They got that wrong. Going westward it’s nearly three times as far.

And then of course there was a little something else that took them completely by surprise. Two continents – North and South America. No question but that discovery was something of a diversion. The pickings were rich in the new world. There was gold. There were pearls. There were people they could enslave. They didn’t completely take their eye off the ball, though. They were told there was a sea beyond the lands they’d discovered. A sea that, so they thought, would lead on to Asia.

Balboa set out to find it. The South Sea as it was known then. What we call the Pacific Ocean today. They called it the South Sea because they headed off in a southerly direction to get to it. They were in Panama. It was about a 70-mile trek. Through a swamp forest and a jungle and then over a mountain range. In a place called Darien. And sure enough they got to the top of the mountain they were climbing and there it was. The Pacific Ocean. Naturally Balboa promptly claimed all of the lands bordering this new sea for the Spanish crown. Four days later, September 29th, they reached the Pacific. Balboa waded into it. The first European to set foot in the Americas side of the Pacific. He did so with his hands full. He held aloft a standard of Madonna in his right hand and in his left hand he was brandishing a sword. Not without purpose his waving those two implements about. He was claiming the whole kit and caboodle for God and Spain. That’s a lot of real estate. He certainly can’t have had any idea how much turf and water he was laying claim to but you want a nonpareil definition of a world-class, ravenous appetite you got one right there.

Well, we’re going to leave Balboa splashing about in the Pacific in 1513 and head to London. London a couple of hundred years ago. But parting company with Balboa, here’s a final tidbit. I’ll maybe find an excuse to tie this loose end up in a future podcast. The tidbit is Balboa’s father-in-law had him decapitated six years later. How’s that for a cliffhanger? A curtain line. Or curtains line, if you prefer.

Anyway, yes, we’re now going to put down in London in October 1816.

Going to spend some time with the great Romantic poet John Keats. The greatness was to come. In 1816 Keats was 21 years old. He was just getting started as a poet. A friend had lent him a copy of the Elizabethan poet and dramatist George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. That humble background of his – Keats was the son of a London stable keeper – he of course couldn’t read Homer, couldn’t read ancient Greek.

George Chapman – having translated Homer into English – remedied that defect. Keats spent the night avidly reading Chapman’s translation. He was thrilled. It was a revelation to him. So much so that the next morning he, Keats, put pen to paper himself and wrote his first great sonnet. He titled it On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.

And the great arcing, riveting, thrilling, really, final firework of the poem is a trope. Yes, I’m partial to that fancy word. Trope means extended metaphor. And yes, the trope, the extended metaphor that streaks across – brilliantly illuminates – the night sky of the poem’s farewell bow is that world-changing moment in Darien when European eyes first gazed out over the Pacific Ocean. Keats wanted to find – and did find – a metaphor that spoke to, that expressed his excitement, his sense of astonishment at reading Chapman’s Homer. He’s saying, for me, reading Chapman’s Homer was like the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. Whole vistas – a new world, an all-changed, changed utterly world – opened up before me. Actually, as you’ll see there are two tropes. The opening barrage of the sestet – the second part of a Petrarchan sonnet – is two lines about that thrilling moment when an astronomer discovers a new planet. Another perfectly judged extended metaphor for what it was like for Keats – the sheer wonderment of falling under the spell of Chapman’s Homer.

Anything else? Yes, there is – it almost goes without saying – the business of Keats’ getting the principal historic personage wrong. It was Balboa who was on that peak in Darien. Keats muffs it, says it was Cortez, the cutthroat conqueror of the Aztec empire. Stout Cortez, as Keats calls him. But who cares? This is one instance when historical accuracy has to give way to poetic genius.

And you know something, “stout Balboa” doesn’t have anything like, sound-wise, the diamond-hard clarity of “stout Cortez”

And on that note, and for a finale, given that it’s the anniversary of the day that the famous Spanish explorer and conquistador stood on that peak in Darien, eagle-eyed, while “all his men look’d at each other with a wild surmise” I think we have to revisit that piece of poetic perfection. Hear the sonnet out, let it have its say. You can’t hear it too many times. It never gets old. Here’s John Keats’ first great poem.

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

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.

You’ve been listening to the London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the- right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals.

By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts. Or take our Ripper walk. It was created and was guided for many years by Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald Rumbelow. In the words of the Jack the Ripper A to Z, Donald is “internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” He’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper walk. He curates it; he mentors our Ripper Walk guides.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *