Friday, November 8, 2013

Where is that Peak in Darien?

To introduce the phrase, herewith a famous poem by John Keats (1795-1821) entitled “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-browed 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.

Some preliminary notes. In the paranormal field, a vision of the realms beyond this one, call them the heavenly regions sometimes glimpsed by people on their deathbed or in near-death experiences (NDEs), is called a peak in Darien experience, that phrase itself drawn from John Keats’ poem. It is in such a context that I first encountered the phrase.

Cortez (formally Hernán Cortés (1485-1546)) was a conquistador; Darien, therefore, is presumably somewhere in South America. But Cortez is famed for his conquest of Mexico. So far as we know, he never ventured much west of what we call Mexico City today. He couldn’t have “stared at the Pacific” at all. The so-called “discoverer” of the Pacific—that word in quotes because, of course, it had to have been a European—and the natives that looked at it all the time where not “discoverers”—was actually Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519). Therefore Keats must have been wrong...

Now Balboa’s travels had him crossing today’s Panama. And in the eastern portion of that country is a region called Daríen, complete with some meaningful mountainous formations some of which, no doubt, feature peaks. So a peak in Darien is in Panama. Balboa really did see the Pacific, the first European actually to do so.

Today in that region—marked on the map that I show—is a very extensive national park, called Parque Nacional Daríen. It has plenty of peaks in its western-most region—and while Balboa did not get quite that far down, he did travel to the big island in the Gulf of Panama; it was known by his people as Isla Rica and is on today’s maps called Archipélago de las Perlas. Gold was what the conquistadores wanted; but they took pearls when they could.


  1. Cortez vs. Balboa, to Keats. I appreciate this article showing me where is "a peak in Darien." Yes, Keats had it wrong and I have read a number of explanations. But I believe the speculation that he knew better and used Cortez instead of Balboa because, if you make the substitution in the poem, the rhythm is broken, this speculation does not seem believable. I confess I am distorting your general point for emphasis--but we must bear in mind that Keats was a poet. Poem mechanics are created to fit what the poet wants to say--not the other way around.

  2. /Balboa/ easliy becomes disyllabic.
    But the partickler spot whereon he stood upon at that moment is still not given.

  3. Thank you, Ghulf Genes. I enjoyed this brief exegesis. I, too, have read that Keats used Cortez rather than Balboa, so committed he was to maintaining metric flow. We'll never know for sure.

  4. Further, the name Cortés is accented on the second syllable, so Keats still got his meter wrong even though using the wrong name.

  5. Cortes went on an expedition to Baja, California, so he was definitely west of Mexico City. He also undertook an expedition to Honduras. He certainly gazed upon the Pacific. Keats never says Cortes was the first to do so.