George Chapman

The English poet, dramatist, and translator George Chapman (1559/1634) is best known for his rhyming verse translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

George Chapman was born in Hitchen, a country town near London. He may have attended Oxford, although he claimed to have been selftaught. He spent a few years in the household of a nobleman and in 1591-1592 was engaged in military service on the Continent.

Chapman became an important literary figure with the publication of his first work, The Shadow of Night (1594). This obscure philosophical poem has led some to speculate that Chapman at this time belonged to the "School of Night"—a group of avant-garde thinkers who supposedly challenged traditional beliefs. Although the existence of such a formal "school" is still in doubt, it is clear that Chapman was acquainted with some of the more exciting thinkers of his day.

Chapman's reputation as a man of letters was firmly established by Ovid's Banquet of Sense (1595) and his continuation of Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander (1598), both of them amatory, erotic poems in the vein of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593). He began writing for the stage about 1595 and in the following 10 years composed a number of comedies, including A Humorous Day's Mirth (1597), the earliest example of the "comedy of humours" closely identified with Ben Jonson. Chapman's best-known dramatic work, however, is the heroic tragedy Bussy D'Ambois (1604), which celebrates the lofty aspirations of Renaissance individualism. The title character, modeled on a Frenchman who died in 1579, claims to be superior to ordinary mortals. In The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, a sequel written some 6 years later, Chapman presents a different kind of heroic virtue in the person of Bussy's brother Cleremont, who is noted for his extraordinary stoic forbearance and self-control.

Despite his success as a poet and a dramatist, Chapman led a very insecure existence. In 1600 he was imprisoned for debt, and in 1605 he suffered the same punishment for his part in Eastward Ho!, a play written in collaboration with Jonson and John Marston. For a time he was patronized by Prince Henry; when Henry died unexpectedly in 1612, Chapman found himself again in precarious straits.

Chapman's literary energies after 1613 were devoted almost exclusively to his monumental translation of Homer, which he had begun many years earlier and which he considered his most significant literary achievement. The completed translation, published in 1624, has been immortalized by John Keats's sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (1816). Chapman died on May 12, 1634.

Further Reading on George Chapman

A full sketch of Chapman's life, with excerpts from his letters, is in Charlotte Spivack's George Chapman (1967). For an account of Chapman's ideas on the nature of poetry see Phyllis Brooks Bartlett's introduction to The Poems of George Chapman (1941).

Additional Biography Sources

Hunt, R. A., The Startup papers: on Shakespeare's friend, Upton-upon-Severn: Images, 1993.

Ellis, Havelock, Chapman, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976.