When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be
When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be
John Keats 1818
At the end of 1817, Keats, who had just turned 23, entered a period of intense speculation on the nature of poetry. In letters to his brothers and friends we find him searching for the possibility that art—by uniting “Truth” and “Beauty” in a single sublime experience—possesses the power to overcome the world of pain and death, to redeem man’s “doubts” and “uncertainties” through a brief spiritual transcendence. Keats called this concept “Negative Capability.” By identifying completely with an experience—such as that of perceiving an object—the poet goes beyond the rational “meaning” of his own existence, his selfhood dropping away in favor of a greater “Mystery” that is revealed in die art itself. In such a way, the doubts and uncertainties, which are part of the self s existence, might also be overcome. In his letters Keats wrote often about this possibility, but he also struggled with its most obvious limitations: that fear is an integral part of experience, and that even the most intense identification with an object or with nature serves eventually to point out the transience of an experience and of man himself. Thus, the greatest fears—of time, and of death—become revealed through the intense “thinking” that accompanies the act of writing a poem.
“When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” addresses the philosophical problem in three ways. First, Keats expresses the concern that death might prematurely abort his art and with it his longed-for fame. Second, he worries that death might also interrupt his quest to settle the mystery(the “high romance”) of man’s existence. Third, he fears that death will also preclude the possibility of his ever achieving the transcendent experience of “unreflecting love”—that is, the experience of loving without the death-dealing consequences of thought and scrutiny. The final lines attempt to synthesize the problem in a way that only precariously avoids despair. Fear turns to thought, and thought reveals that both “fame” and “love” are doomed in the end to “nothingness.” Yet the final fear, that of the soul’s fate—the “high romance”—remains barely open to resolution.
Born in 1795, Keats, the son of a stablekeeper, was raised in Moorfields, London, and attended the Clarke School in Enfield. The death of his mother in 1810 left Keats and his three younger siblings in the care of a guardian, Richard Abbey. Although Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary, he soon realized that writing was his true talent, and he decided to become a poet. Forced to hide his ambition from Abbey, who would not have sanctioned it, Keats instead entered Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals in London, becoming an apothecary in 1816 and continuing his studies to become a surgeon. When he reached the age of twenty-one, Keats was free of Abbey’s jurisdiction. Supported by his small inheritance, he devoted himself to writing. Keats also began associating with artists and writers, among them Leigh Hunt, who published Keats’s first poems in his journal, the Examiner. But within a few years die poet experienced the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and brother. He continued writing and reading the great works of literature. He also fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a neighbor’s daughter, though his poor health and financial difficulties made marriage impossible. He published a final work, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, which included his famous odes and the unfinished narrative, Hyperion: A Fragment. Keats travelled to Italy in 1820 in an effort to improve his health but died in Rome the following year at the age of 26.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love— then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
The central metaphor in the first quatrain is the comparison between writing poetry and harvesting grain. The speaker compares the pen with an implement of harvest(“glean’d my teeming brain”) and books with the buildings(“garners”) where grain is stored. The metaphor expresses the first of the speaker’s three main concerns: that death will cut short his poetic career. Just as a person’s natural life spans youth, adulthood, and old age, so the growing of grain follows the natural progression of the seasons. For the poet to die young, however, precludes his chance of “harvesting” the fruits of his mind, which become “ripen’d” only as the poet ages. These fruits, which are poetic works, grant the poet fame, represented by the “high-piled books” in line 3. The fear of obscurity was one Keats carried to his death only three years after composing “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”. Though he had no way of knowing his life would indeed be cut short before he achieved the kind of recognition he sought, he echoes this concern in the final line of the sonnet.
Some readers believe that the second quatrain continues to discuss the fear that death will cut short the speaker’s poetic career. These readers infer that the “high romance” symbolized by the night clouds is a literary concept, a level of artistic expression the speaker will never “live to trace,” or to realize. But another reading is possible. The night sky as a symbol for the ultimate questions that haunt man dates back to ancient times. The Hebrew Psalmist, for instance, reflects on die stars in Psalm 8(in the King James Bible) and asks himself, “What is man?” While Keats’s use of the word romance” might suggest a literary meaning, die reader must also acknowledge more philosophical implications. The clouds move across die moon and stars, making “shadows” that recall Plato’s analogy of me cave wall. These shadows, cryptic and insubstantial as they are, reveal die greater mystery of the heavens. By living, the poet hopes he can divine the explanation for—die “Truth” of—the universe, and by extension me riddle of his own existence. Whether or not he lives to do so, however, remains at the discretion of “the magic hand of chance,” or fate. If he dies too soon, he knows, he will not be able to solve the mystery of the heavens, to “trace their shadows.” This fear that he will die in ignorance of the soul’s ultimate destiny is one mat goes far beyond the question of poetic fame in the first quatrain. It is also a concept mat remains unsettled by the final two lines of the poem—not dissolving, as do “love” and “fame,” to “nothingness.”
The third quatrain speaks of another kind of “high romance,” that of “unreflecting love.” In these lines, the speaker first addresses his beloved in typically romantic terms(“fair creature”), yet the quatrain’s main concern is not the beloved at all. Instead, it is the self. The speaker’s meditation on his beloved leads instantly to his twin fears of time and death. Because of life’s fleetingness, his love is only “of an hour.” Further, the consciousness of time—and of love’s transience—precludes what the speaker suggests is the best kind of love: love devoid of analytical scrutiny and therefore free of the fear of loss and death. This kind of love has a “faery power” (in mythology, fairies are immortal) precisely because it is “unreflecting.” Because the speaker’s nature is to be self-conscious, die opposite of “unreflecting,” he fears he will never experience this kind of love.
In the end, the speaker’s recognition that he lacks the qualities of “unreflecting love” leads him to the state of alienation described in the final couplet. Because he is too self-conscious to love, he is forced to “stand alone.” Isolated, he continues to “think.” But thinking is, in this poem, equal to death. As he reflects on time’s inevitable course, two things the speaker holds most valuable in life—“love and fame”—are shown to be insubstantial given the fact of death, and they dissolve into “nothingness.” Thus the speaker stands on “die shore/ of the wide world,” at die edge of what we perceive in life but also close to what might exist beyond. In this state, there is only a hint of solace. While love and fame prove illusory, me “high romance” of the universe discussed in the second quatrain does not “sink” into “nothingness.” It is this mystery, represented by the “huge cloudy symbols” of Line 6, that the speaker comes closest to in die poem, his fear of death leading to the ultimate question of his own existence.
Meaning of Life
Being faced with the prospect of death, the speaker of this poem lists the things that he believes give life meaning. These are not necessarily the things that have given life meaning in the past. There is no indication of how much time he has devoted to each of them or if he has done anything about them at all up to this point, only mat in theory he is realizing at that very moment that these things are important. The first and most pressing thing that he would miss if he died is the opportunity to get all of the ideas that are floating around in his brain written down on paper, as a sort of backup system for when his brain shuts down and everything in his brain is erased. Keats, the consummate artist, had either enough ego or enough faith in the importance of every individual’s story to realize how important knowing about one man’s life could be to future generations. It is important to note that this is a selfless concern, not an attempt to “live forever through one’s art”: the title alone tells us he is not trying for immortal life. His second concern, indicated by his going back to the rhetorical beginning and starting with “when” again(and by the Shakespearian sonnet format, which starts new subjects in the fifth and ninth lines), is high romance, a concept that has more to do with understanding nature than with people. His wish to “trace” the “huge cloudy symbols” of the world is similar to other people’s desire to know God. Love comes third; in describing the object of his love as “fair creature of an hour,” he narrows his concerns about the meaning of life down from huge abstracts to something that is real and that he would actually miss if he died—the sort of actuality that someone who was less of a romantic dreamer or dedicated artist than Keats might put further up the list.
The key word that this poem uses in talking about love is “unreflecting”: literature often refers to love as a way of getting to know oneself by the way that the other person responds—much like the way a mirror reflects an image. With that one word, Keats rejects the notion of seeing oneself in one’s lover, and he supports the less comforting thought of love as a mystery or “faery power” that works its magic on him for no direct or knowable reason. In one sense, Keats shows considerable confidence if he values a love that will not return to him what he puts into it: many people would worry about the possibility of feeling embarrassed or cheated and of loving and not being loved. This might be confidence, or it might be that he does not care. He shows that he does not value this love very highly by only worrying about it after thoughts of writing and nature are taken care of. Also, his particular concept of art is a matter of reflecting the thoughts in his head by the words he puts on paper. Such a dedicated, passionate artist does not need love to tell him who he is.
It is interesting that this poem makes such a clear distinction between love and romance, a distinction that is almost never made in our society anymore. We have come to merge the two concepts together, moving love up in order of importance to make it a more central part of a person’s life, not just the pleasant, powerful distraction that Keats presents it as. In the poem we can see that there is
Topics for Further Study
- In this poem Keats lists things that he would regret having not done if he had died. Write a poem about things you would like to do, or do more fully, before you die. Try to follow the structure and rhyme scheme of Keats.
- This poem shows the conflict between living sensibly and living for the moment: logic versus romance. How does the speaker feel about “love and fame”? Do you think his feelings will change as he gets older?
a relationship between love and romance—he makes a point of specifying “high” romance as opposed to low, and both are recognized for magical powers—, but the line between them is clearly drawn.
Doubt and Ambiguity
This poem is about the self-fulfilling prophecy, about how the fear of losing all makes the speaker actually lose all. The form that it is written in, the Shakespearian sonnet, requires the poem to draw some sort of generalization or conclusion at the end. Keats does this: his conclusion lists once more the things he expects death to take him away from, only this time he is distanced from them in life. His worry has wrapped him up in a death-like cocoon of self-involvement. The poem does not say why this speaker fears that he will cease to be. Bio-graphically, we can guess that his brother’s fatal illness probably kept the issue of mortality in the forefront of Keats’s thoughts. But, as poet Robert Browning said later in the nineteenth century while he mocking the idea of mistaking the poet’s life for his message, “What porridge did Keats eat?” As for the speaker of the poem, his concern could be caused by anything. If we knew, we could guess whether the fear expressed in the poem is justified or if the speaker is a hypochondriac, and our ignorance seems to be precisely Keats’ point: doubt is never justified and is always counterproductive. It is of course a reality that every person will “cease to be”; it seems at first to be a good thing that Keats is applying his massive intelligence and sensitivity to this universal situation, but the poem ends on a note of defeat, with the speaker standing alone at the end of the world before death has even made such isolation necessary.
“When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” is considered one of Keats’ most successful attempts to write a Shakespearean sonnet. This fourteen-line form begins with three quatrains, or four-line parts in which the every other line of each part is set in end rhyme. The three quatrains generally introduce and delineate some kind of problem, concern or fear. The Shakespearean sonnet concludes with a rhymed couplet in which the issue raised in the first twelve lines is resolved. Keats’ poem addresses in the first twelve lines three different aspects of the fear that he may “cease to be.” Each quatrain examines a different aspect of that fear: the possibility that his career will be cut short, that he will never solve life’s great mystery, and that he will never experience the most profound love. The three quatrains also open with parallel clauses, each introducing a different verb to reflect a new aspect of the poem ’s meditation on death: “When I have fears” (of dying), “when I behold” (the night sky), and “when I feel” (the fleetingness of love’s possibility). The poem’s resolution really begins midway through Line 12, following the dash. In the final two lines, fear leads to thought, to alienation, and thus to the inevitable sense of “nothingness” that yields mostly despair.
As in most Shakespearean sonnets, the dominant meter is iambic, which means the poem’s lines are constructed in two-syllable segments, called iambs, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed. As an example of iambic meter, consider the first line of the poem:
When I / have fears / that I / may cease / to be .
Reading the line naturally, notice the emphasis on the stressed syllables. You will notice this meter in most lines of the poem. Sometimes, however, the poet deviates from the iambic rhythm to emphasize important phrases and particularly figurative uses. Some examples of this are “like rich garners” (Line 4), “the night’s starred face” (Line 5), and, most strikingly, “to nothingness do sink” (Line 14).
John Keats wrote this poem in January of 1818, when he was twenty-two years old. He had been rereading King Lear, one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote, and he experienced a burst of inspiration that produced a number of great poems in a few short weeks. Some of the poems he wrote at that time were lighthearted and humorous—a tribute to a friend’s cat, memories of a beautiful woman he had seen in passing, a poem about Robin Hood, and a tribute to one of his favorite drinking places, the Mermaid Tavern. This particular Shakespearian sonnet must have come from more than just reading the old master’s work: Keats also was preoccupied with tending to the severe illness of his brother Tom, who was dying of consumption, a hereditary disease. Later in 1818, Tom died. In January of 1819, a year after this poem was written, John Keats found out that he had consumption too. For a year and a half he turned out one sad poem after another, feverish with the developing disease and also with thoughts of poetry, love, and death. He died in 1821, at the age of twenty-five. In his short lifetime he wrote several hundred poems, only about a third of which were published. The rest have been tracked down by an army of biographers and historians from his journals and letters as well as the private collections of friends. Of the poets of his generation that we study today, Keats is considered to be the most level-headed and generous—certainly moreso than Lord Byron, who earned and lost fortunes only slightly less quickly than he went through women, or Percy Shelley, who left his wife to live with his sixteen-year-old mistress, although it must be said that he did marry the mistress after his wife drowned herself.
The time during which Keats grew up was an era of social revolution and philosophical upheaval that have changed the structure of society and, in particular, literature, forever. One of his most vivid childhood memories was from 1803, when he was eight. He watched London and all of England brace itself for assault from the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was expanding the French empire by annexing much of Europe. The Napoleonic Wars changed the face of the continent, in the end freeing states that had been under the rule of one empire or another for centuries(by 1867, though, most of the same countries were absorbed into the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary). The Napoleonic Wars lasted until 1815, when Bonaparte surrendered to the British at Waterloo. During that time England was united in supporting its military’s opposition
Compare & Contrast
- 1818: Allied forces left France after three years of occupation following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
1920: French troops moved into German territory after Germany violated the treaty that ended World War I.
1945: At the end of World War II Germany was divided into East Germany and West Germany, each under the protection and supervision of countries with different political theories.
Today: Peacekeeping troops are sent to countries before fighting spreads out to global proportions.
- 1818: Britain and the United States agreed on the U.S.-Canadian border.
1845: Texas, which declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, became the 38th state of the union.
1959: Hawaii and Alaska became the 49th and 50th states and the only states that are not connected to the mainland.
position to the French, but after the war the class struggle and the rise of the common man that had prompted the American Revolution in 1776 and the French Revolution in 1789 created a split between British peasants and landowners.
The spirit of liberty ruled the times, and it created its own revolution in literature and the other arts. We refer to this time as the age of Romanticism. Keats is generally recognized to be one of the most important figures of the British Romantic movement, along with Shelley and Byron and the men credited with bringing the movement to life, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Romanticism was not a club that artists professed loyalty to, like some artistic movements: it was more of a mood throughout Western society of which we are we now are able to recognize the signs. Starting in the late-eighteenth century with Wordsworth and Coleridge, writers started to assert their instincts over intellect, exploring their emotions and breaking the rules of their craft sometimes just to press the point that the artist is more important than artistic ideals. Romantic writers responded to love as the greatest thing people could enjoy together(which determined the way we use the word “romantic” today) and to nature, which to them meant reality, as opposed to the figments of the mind that we encounter in the social world. Romanticism gave us the idea of the mad artist driven by his work, breaking hearts, and ignorant of what is going on in his personal life because he is so aflame with inspiration. Keats was like this in some respects. He was, as we can see in this poem, driven almost demonically to write all that he could—as if art was a sacred mission—, and his early death prevented him from ever losing his passion, as Wordsworth and Byron did as they aged. But Keats avoided the extremes of Romanticism in that he was more level-headed than some of his peers, more respectful to the history of his craft, and not as driven by innovation.
Some critics have made special note of Keats’ metaphorical comparison between poetry and the harvesting of grain. According to Helen Vendler, the metaphor suggests that art takes on a social function, the audience being the beneficiary of the “gleaned wheat.” Vendler closely examines the first quatrain of the sonnet, which she argues is a precursor to the later “Ode to Autumn,” also in this series. If the poet’s output is like grain and books like “rich garners,” Vendler writes, then “organic nature, after its tramsmutation into charactery ... becomes edible grain.” Thus, Vendler continues, “Keats asserts that the material sublime, the teeming fields of earth, can enter the brain and be hieroglyphically processed into print.” Walter Evert also traces the metaphor through other Keats poems. “The harvest symbol,” he argues, “is central to Keats’ thought and, in one form or another, occurs repeatedly throughout his work.” Its use in “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” Evert writes, “is perfectly appropriate and comprehensible in its particular context and requires no external intellectual support.” As such, the metaphor represents and example of “the poet’s ability to mediate with perfect clarity between the private world of abstractions and the public world of generalized experience.”
Bruce King is the author of several books relating to literature and a freelance writer and poetry critic. In the following essay, King discusses the standard elements of a Shakespearean sonnet and provides an in-depth analysis of how Keats manipulated language within the constraints of this form to produce the powerful message in “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be.”
After the eighteenth century’s tight neoclassical heroic couplets, nineteenth-century poets re-explored the uses of the sonnet, a Renaissance literary form that had fallen into disuse. William Wordsworth wrote more than 500 sonnets along with poems in blank verse. Keats wrote more than 60 sonnets—most before he began writing odes, a form that, in his hands, is influenced by the sonnet. The Petrachan sonnet consists of 14 lines, in which the opening octave consisting of two rhymed quatrains is followed and balanced by a rhymed sestet, made of two tercets. The sonnet is used to develop thoughts and emotions economically toward a concise conclusion. Usually a thought or idea in the first eight lines is balanced by some reversal or answer in the sestet. (There are also other sonnet forms.)
“When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” is a Shakespearean sonnet consisting of three quatrains, each of alternating new rhymes(abab, cdcd, efef) concluding with a couplet(gg). The quatrains are marked by the semicolons after lines 4 and 8, by the repetition of “When I” at the start of the first and second quatrain, and by the repeated phrase “And when I” at the start of the third quatrain. Sonnets, however, traditionally have three(rather than four) rhyme sounds in the octave; one of the first two rhyme sounds recurrs in the second quatrain. Here the vowel rhyme “romance’and “chance” in the second quatrain has similarities to “brain’V’grain” in the first quatrain while the nasal “n” sounds are alike. Once “romance” and “chance” are seen as approximate rhymes of “brain” then the rhyme pattern is abab cbcb dede ff. This is one of the many ways in which Keats makes the poem more unified and the rhymes less obtrusive.
Keats avoids a feeling of rigid structure while knitting the sonnet into a single, unbroken argument. The rhymes of the third quatrain are not distinct from each other; the four words—“hour,” “more,” “power,” and “shore”—end on an “r” sound and their vowel sounds are similar. Several vertical structures of sound contribute to the musicality of the poem. Many of the words in the rhyme position at the end of lines have sounds similar to the end words in the previous or next line. Lines 2 through 6 have such late “r” sounds as “brain,” “charact’ry,” and “ripen’d grain.”
The flow, power, and conciseness of the thought are helped by an energetic syntax. The poem is one long, complete sentence. There are no full stops, only three semi-colons, and the poem is printed without spaces between stanzas. The sense is carried over from one line to the next. The argument is dramatically structured with various times imagined between the opening and conclusion: “When I” / “Before” / “Before” / “And when I” / “I shall never” / “Then I.” The forward movement of thought, grammar, and even the rhymes builds up force as each part of the sentence is momentarily blocked in its rush toward the conclusion. The conclusion starts late after the semicolon and dash in line 12(”—then on the shore”), metrically after the third foot in the line.
In art of the Romantic period, the normally distinct parts of a form are sometimes run together to allow the artist greater freedom. Keats uses the sonnet as a frame upon which to soliloquize, a shape upon which to string his thoughts about death, love, art, imagination, fame and writing. These thoughts progress by personal associations; the introduction of a “fair creature of an hour” and love in line nine is unexpected. Keats fears he will die before he has created a body of lasting work or tasted the full pleasures of life. We could claim that the poem itself, the giving of form to fears and desires, is an
What Do I Read Next?
- Ernest Becker’s 1973 study The Denial of Death takes a psychological look at how almost every action we take is some form of reaction to our knowledge that we will eventually die. The subject matter could not be more closely related to the poem, although Becker explores the issue in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis, which is not routinely respected today. Still, it makes good sense when read as literature, not science.
- Keats is not generally thought to be a “man of his times,” meaning that his works have not been considered to have much relationship with the world he lived in. A 1995 book edited by Nicholas Roe, Keats and History, however, contains 13 essays by scholars who researched extensively to find subtle relationships that would not appear to nonscholars.
- T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets of our century, includes a much-quoted chapter about Keats and Shelley in his collection of lectures titled The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism that was collected and published in 1933 and has since been reprinted often. Eliot’s perspective as a poet and a no-nonsense modernist makes his opinions worth the reader’s respect.
- Oxford University Press has been responsible for assembling and verifying the definitive versions of Keats’s poems, available in The Poetry of John Keats, published in 1939 and revised by H.W. Garrod in 1958.
- For a good study of what the Romantic age was like and Keats’s importance to it, there are few works better that Edward E. Bostetter’s The Romantic Ventriloquists: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron. Unlike reference books, which are useful to be looked at quickly for specific information, this book tells an interesting story: it is what is called “a good read.” Published first in 1963, it was re-released in 1975 after Professor Bostetter’s death.
example of what the poem concerns; it soothes such fears by allowing us to think about them.
“When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” was written during January of 1818, soon after “On Sitting Down to Read King Once Again,” where Keats contrasts the “golden tongued Romance, with serene lute” of his own poetry with “the fierce dispute / Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay” in Shakespeare’s play. “When I Have Fears” was the first time Keats used the Shakespearean sonnet form; it is also Shakespearean in its alliteration(“be,” “Before,” “brain,” “Before,” “books”) and some of its language and themes. Keats’s contrast between being and nonbeing echoes Shakespeare’s Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, although Keats’s meaning is less profound. Keats merely contrasts possible achievements and sensations with the “nothingness” of death, whereas Hamlet asks what is death, is it punishment in hell, becoming something monstrous, or annihilation? Hamlet might murder his uncle if he knew what happens after death. Keats fears the annihilation of the self before he has expressed the many feelings in his brain by writing books, before he has copied the hidden truths of art, and before he has fully experienced love. In the Shakespearean metaphor of “garners”/ “ripen’d grain,” thoughts and writing are associated with the natural world, time, food and the seasons. Books, especially a body of work(“high-piled books”), are similar to bread made from wheat; the work of the artist requires time to grow, harvest, and store.
The second quatrain recalls the sky at night with stars and “cloudy symbols.” Keats fears that he will die before he can “trace / Their shadows.” Here interpretations of the poem may differ. The sonnet is about fears of failing expectations, but expectations of what? In his book John Keats, Walter Jackson Bate reads the sonnet literally with “romance” solely referring to a type of long narrative poem such as Keats’s own “Endymion.” While Bate argues that at this time Keats was concerned with the physical rather than the allegorical, spiritual, or mystical, the poem’s language treats the physical as if it were symbolic of the spiritual. Keats suggests there are difficult to understand “cloudy symbols” of some further truths hidden in the myths and stories we imagine. He hopes to write(“to trace”) poetic tales(“high romance”) that have in them spiritual truths of which we only know their “shadows.” There are many well-known passages of philosophy and religion according to which we can only see shadows of some higher truth. Keats uses his imagination to write, but he does not say he believes.
In Keats’s poems there are some difficulties in knowing precisely what is meant. At times the language, allusion, or thought is so elliptical as to be obscure. Both Claude Lee Finney, in The Evolution of Keats’s Poetry, and Bate suggest that in the third quatrain, the “creature” is a woman Keats had once seen and written a poem about. While Keats uses a vocabulary that could apply metaphorically to a mortal woman, he could mean a momentarily imagined vision. “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unreflecting love” means that the love he wants to enjoy(“relish”) would be apprehended directly; it is an unmediated experience of love. This probably concerns a real woman, although the vocabulary along with the pattern of imagery in the poem(“symbols,” “trace,” “shadows,” “unreflecting”) suggests a higher love. The poet is suddenly returned to the rather plain, unexciting, “shore/ Of the wide world” where he is alone and thinks about the previous moment of intensity and the problems raised. “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink” has a similar ambiguity found in the conclusion to another of Keats’s poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Is Keats saying he will keep thinking until death or until having thought so long, he will no longer be concerned with love and fame? The first lines of the poem end “be ... brain”; the concluding rhyme is “think ... sink.” “And think” is repeated twice in the poem. We think about feelings, actions, love, and mysteries. The brain is a source of being, but as we use it to imagine, we sink into unthinking inactivity and death. We think until thought ends; like life, the poem raises thoughts that come to an end.
There are many rapid and suggestive contrasts in dictions in “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be.” There are the intensifying adverbs, adjectives, compounds, and uncommon words that raise emotions and strain to transcend the limitations of life: “glean’d,” “teeming,” “high-piled,” “charact’ry,” “rich,” “full ripen’d,” “night’s starr’d,” “cloudy,” “high,” and “faery.” Such words mostly occur in the first six lines of the poem, and they lift the poem toward the cloudy, shadowy intimation of a higher reality in the second quatrain. The “e” and “i” vowels feel linked to the “I” of the speaker, an “I” that strains for fame through tracing some higher truth and is thus also an eye(eye “behold,” eye “may never live to trace,” eye “shall never look”). At the heart of the poem is the “fair creature” of “faery power,” the artist’s vision of a love that shines in itself without being a reflection of another love, perhaps instead of the way human love is often said to be a reflection of divine love and the way human love is in the reflecting eye of the beholder.
The iambic pentameter lines, each of ten syllables, are made mostly of words of one or two syllables. Although the rhythm is regular with a pause at the end of lines after most rhyme words, the five lines (1, 7, 11, 12, and 13) without end pauses increase the forward momentum. The opening line establishes a regular rhythm that is felt throughout the poem, while the lack of punctuation after “be” allows the movement to rush on to the first minor interruption, a comma, at the end of the second line. Although semicolons are used for heavier pauses at the end of the first two quatrains, the only major interruption occurs after the sixth syllable of line 12: “love; —,” which temporarily halts the flow of energy from line 11 which itself has no end pause. After the semicolon and dash, line 12 rapidly gathers up speed with four short words, and the thought continues(no pause at the end of this line) until “alone,” the seventh and eighth syllables of line 13, then quickly picks up momentum again with two monosyllabic words(“and think”) and runs on to the concluding “sink.” The climax of the final line has been prepared for by the three previous lines without end pauses and by the way the internal pauses move further up along the lines toward the conclusion. We are conscious of such pauses because there are few earlier(lines 3, 5, 8, and 9) and most occur in the first half the line.
Each line starts with a functional word such as “When,” “Before,” “And,” and “Till.” Contrasted to the intensifying modifiers that tend to be in compound forming phrases, there is the solid, plain monosyllabic “Of the wide world I stand alone, and think” and the monosyllabic “Till ... do sink” in which the k of “sink” is a fitting closure. A Keatsean characteristic is the abstract—“love,” “fame,” “nothingness”—at the conclusion. “When I Have Fears” seems at first to be about seeking transcendence of this world through art, love, and vision—desires that conflict with the limitations of being human—, but when read carefully, it is more about the fear of dying before living fully in this world(which is what the first line says). Between the first and last line we have experienced Keats’s desires and intimations of life’s possibilities, especially for the artist.
Source: Bruce King, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Elliott offers his interpretation of “When I Have Fears,” focusing on what he believes Keats meant to accomplish in this poem.
One of Keats’s most popular poems, almost unfailingly chosen for even the shortest anthologized presentations of his work, is his sonnet “When I Have Fears.” The poem has, however, received surprisingly little critical consideration, and even less agreement among its critics on the worth of individual parts and the meaning of the poem as a whole. Though I shall refer briefly to some of these previous comments, my chief task will be to present an interpretation of the poem along lines which come, I hope to show, closer to the poet’s intention than any we have previously seen.
It would seem a fair statement that the wide popularity of the poem rests almost entirely on the sentiments expressed in the first quatrain. The second quatrain has proven to be difficult and mysterious to commentators, though, unlike the third, it is generally admired. In her biography of Keats, Amy Lowell says of the poem: “The first two quatrains of the sonnet are nothing less than magnificent, and were it not for the change and drop in theme, tenor, and diction of the succeeding quatrain and couplet, ’When I Have Fears’ would rank among the best sonnets that Keats did.” Walter Jackson Bate, in my view the best biographer of the poet, likely had this criticism in mind when he wrote that the end of the sonnet is “always felt to be something of a drop.” Neither biographer attempts an explication of the whole poem. The only full studies of the sonnet are by M.A. Goldberg and T. E. Connally. Connally, in the shorter and more limited discussion, emphasizes his belief that a sharp distinction should be made between the first two quatrains: “The second quatrain simply does not go with the first, for it contains the consolation of the sonnet. The two quatrains treat entirely different problems and raise entirely different questions.” Connally, like some other commentators, is bothered by the diffusion of images in the second quatrain and is especially troubled by the phrase “the magic hand of chance.” He says of it: “Obviously Keats was not thinking of his poetry, and the line has another meaning.” He concludes that the second stanza deals with the “spiritual significance of life.” M.A. Goldberg, who admits that his debt to Earl Wasserman’s reading of Keats’s poetry is “apparent,” interprets the poem as a movement toward apotheosis where, at the end, the protagonist “achieves some kind of height...” Goldberg sees the movement in the sonnet as one from poetry to love until finally a fellowship with something higher, an “essence,” can be attained. He concludes: “Thus, in the final line, when poetry and love ’to nothingness do sink,’ thing has been subordinated to value, poetry and love have been subordinated to their essence, and the world of mortality has been left behind for the immutable, the fixed, the essential.”
In obvious contrast to these views, it seems to me that there are few poems in which Keats is more wholly concerned with the claims of this world than in “When I Have Fears.” The first quatrain is a vision of poetic accomplishment; the second, a description of the imaginative process which leads to composition; the third, a lament for the impossibility of having a love ungoverned by time, followed by a couplet which states that the enormity of the possibility of imminent death reduces all worldly desire to inconsequence. This final thought is the culmination of the musings begun in each quatrain and is the logical and emotional conclusion of each.
“When I Have Fears” was written in January, 1818, but was not published until 1848. It is the first of Keats’s Shakespearean sonnets; he had employed the Petrarchan form just a few days earlier in the sonnet “On Sitting Down To Read King Lear Once Again,” and as this poem and letters written at the time show, Shakespeare was a conscious influence on his work. “When I Have Fears” is a pure example of the English form. It is a single sentence with each of the three quatrains containing independent imagistic concepts related to a common theme and ending in a couplet which is not only the logical and emotional conclusion of each, as noted, but the grammatical conclusion of each as well. There is a cause and effect relationship between each quatrain and the couplet, and it is possible to make three completely satisfactory poems by appending the final two and a half lines to each quatrain; the effect of the quatrains, however, is cumulative, and each adds an enriching variation to a theme. As in the earlier sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” example is added to example to form illustrative material, but unlike that poem which uses as objective correlatives the observer of the night sky and the Spanish explorers to help the reader understand an emotion already felt by the poet, “When I Have Fears” is a poem of unfolding discovery for both poet and reader in which the full import of speculation is not reached for either until the end.
In the first quatrain Keats expresses his fear, not of dying, but of a time when death will curtail his ability to write. In this sonnet there is no interest in death itself, but in the effacement of life, a concern which grows in the poem until as an idée fixe it blots out all other considerations from consciousness. When, elsewhere, death itself is considered, as in “Ode To A Nightingale” or as the concluding image in the sonnets “After Dark Vapours” and especially in “Why Did I Laugh Tonight” it is seen, in the greatest extention of Keats’s “contrarieties,” as the most intense of experiences, an ultimate consummation devoutly to be wished. No such desire is seen in “When I Have Fears”; the things sought here are firmly anchored to the values of living in this world; verse, fame, and beauty make their strong claims.
There can be little doubt that the strongest of these is verse. Two-thirds of the poem is about poetry and the way it is written; his fear is not for himself or even for unfulfilled personal experiences, but that there will not be time to write. There is something more awful in the blank vacancy of the phrase “cease to be” than in any idea of death or dying, for these are at least the end of an organic process related to life, but ceasing to be is the total disappearance of sentience, and is directly related to the image of nothingness at the end of the poem.
The possession of unhurried time as a necessary ingredient in the production of poetry and in meaningful human love is the strong integument which binds together seemingly disparate parts of the poem. It is an organic concept in which Keats sees slow time wedded to process; though this concept of time is discussed in each quatrain, it is no doubt most easily seen in the famous autumn metaphor at the beginning of the poem. The autumn season as a topos of completion is, of course, an ancient one, but it seemed to be especially appealing to Keats in that it represented the end of a slow-moving inevitable development, the conclusion of which was implicit in its beginning. This same portrayal of time and process was to be used later with equal success in “Ode To Autumn” when the season is painted at the zenith of completion and abundance moving toward a kind of denouement in which the personification of the season is seen as having no more work to do and can be found “sitting careless on a granary floor” or waiting beside a cider-press “with patient look” watching “the last oozings hours by hours.” Time, in this soft setting, is a friend so familiar, so taken for granted, that it need not even be considered. In the sonnet, the poet is all too aware that he is barely past his seed time. Great fecundity is implicit in the image of the teeming brain, but also implicit is the understanding that this abundance is inchoate and must experience the gleaning pen which will separate poetic chaff from grain. The books he envisions writing will be “rich garners” of “full-ripen’d grain” but to reach this harvest he will need a luxurious expansiveness of time, for growth through time is the only way the grain can be ripened fully and the only way the rich but shapeless material of his brain can be given form and meaning. And even after time and season have brought forth a field ready for the harvest, the gleaning pen must perform its selective task so that only rich garners may be kept.
The first quatrain ends with a vision of work wonderfully fulfilled; the second quatrain is an investigation into the way such work is conceived and written, and in this way is an extension and amplification of concepts already introduced. The verb “behold” in line five sets the tone. The poet is an awed observer, not only of the magnificent display of stars in the clear night sky, but of a vast inspirational field from which future poems may be fashioned. It is an image of infinite but as yet unformed possibility, glorious in the promise of an accomplishment still free from a less than perfect actuality. It is not only that Keats is inspired by nature, as he surely is, but that the empyrean contains symbolic information which, if properly followed, can be transmuted into poetry; but such a paraphrase is too literalistic and formulaic for the experience Keats goes on to describe. Because the essence of his reaction is an unforced intuitive response, he foils any attempt at a simply rational reduplication. In a series of carefully chosen images, he takes us, step by step, with a logic which seeks to subvert logic, ever further away from ratiocinative investigation. The face of the night is clear, but the symbols which it contains are huge and cloudy. These symbols are all we are told of a “high romance” which they suggest, but because the cloudy symbols are all we can ever know of this “romance,” it is even more remote from our ken than they are. Keats does not want us to think of his “high romance” as a kind of poetry, certainly not of the specificity of chivalric or medieval verse, but he is talking about what must be called the stuff of poetry, the very nature of the poetic experience. But he knows how far he is from any kind of apprehension of this essence; even the symbols of it are huge and cloudy and he contemplates no greater nearness than to trace the shadows of these symbols. Indeed, even this tracing of shadows cannot be a volitional act, for it must be done with the hand of chance. Thus, though it is far from the high romance, the hand of chance can be seen as the hand of the poet, the distillation at last rendered in human terms. The realization must now come, however, that chance is a very time-consuming process. No one was more aware than Keats of how willful the muse could be; if fine things must come randomly, then patience and time are required to wait for the flash of gold in the washings. Therefore, because it is his fear that such an abundance of time will not be afforded him, his hand, guided by chance, the gleaning hand which will transform the shadows into high-piled books, becomes a magical thing not only because it has the alchemical power of making poetic gold from gossamer, but because such a thing may be denied him, and to be without it is to see its possession by others as magical. Thus, like the progress of seed to harvest shock, the process from the first promptings of the imagination to the writing hand of the poet is one which needs the full indulgence of benevolent time. The magic hand of chance holds the gleaning pen, and both quatrains speak to the poet’s fear that this living hand will be stilled far too soon.
In the last quatrain, Keats moves from his discussion of the relationship between time and poetry to the relationship between time and love. Though the sonnet tells us that his desire and need to be a poet is probably the most important general consideration in his life, his need for love is more immediately intense and his sense of the loss of love concomitantly more immediately painful.
Though there has been speculation by Wood-house and others that the “fair creature of an hour” in line nine refers to a real woman, specifically to some unknown girl the sight of whom entranced Keats one night at Vauxhall, the quatrain goes beyond a single incident, and probably beyond a single woman, to a statement about the loss of love. The impress of time on the poet’s consciousness is such that it is possible to interpret the “fair creature of an hour” as literally an hour, a unit of time made fair because he feels it may soon be gone, but such a reading must be an addendum; his
“When I Have Fears’ is a poem of unfolding discovery for both poet and reader in “which the full import of speculation is not reached for either until the end.”
strongly stated feeling in these lines is of his fear that time will prohibit all personal love, whether of the transience of a momentary encounter at Vauxhall, or the even more deeply wished for permanence of a lifetime love which would become so much a part of the pattern of his life that it would be freed from the anxiety of conscious concern. As in the previous quatrains, the most important realization here is that the possibility of the denial of time once more drops a dark curtain between the poet and his most ardent desires. His love seems to him of necessity the fair creature of an hour, but the great unspoken wish is that she might somehow be more than this. He knows that others have enjoyed love seemingly uncircumscribed by time, and by this is meant no platonic or astral relationship, but a worldly one which matures and ripens through years. There is no need for such a love, once possessed, to be ever at the forefront of one’s cares; it is in this sense “unreflecting” for it becomes as much a part of life as breathing. And to the poet who despairs of ever having such a love and is never without the sound of time’s chariot hurrying near, those who have it must be seen to have a “faery power” in their seemingly godlike enjoyment of a benign, expanded life and love. As the hand of chance was magic because it seemed to escape time, love which the years so lightly touch also belongs to the same exalted order. Indeed, for one who feels that life may soon be taken away, all women become creatures of an hour, and no love can be unreflecting —the frame of time in which love must then be seen must always bring the poet back to his sole self with the result of an inevitable disappearance of love, as his attention, in spite of all his desires, ineluctably shies from the speculation of anything except the spectre of his demise.
The final two-and-a-half lines of the poem make a summary statement. The things of the world have receded from the poet’s consideration and lie behind him as the land lies behind someone standing on the ocean’s shore, but there is no sense of observation, that is, that anything is being looked at, for all the remarkably acute senses have imploded to a single thought, and it is of one man alone. The world is wide and vacant as the moon, for there are no human figures on it beside me poet to give it dimension and scale. It is an image of what we would now call a modern existential position, modern in the sense that it goes beyond the unresolved anxieties of the Victorians to both an intellectual and emotional acceptance of the absolute isolation of the individual.
Yet an important distinction must be made between contemporary existential thought and the figure of the isolated poet at the end of the sonnet. He has arrived where he is not because philosophical speculation has brought him to these conclusions about man’s place, but because he has fears that it will be his. Nor does the sonnet contain the anger and despair that is the prevailing tone of much recent work; though the final image is one of absolute solitude, the poem as a whole is exultingly Romantic. For in spite of the realization that death will reduce him to a sod, the desires so vividly expressed in the poem tell us, as they do so often in Keats, of the great excitement of the imaginative mind at work and of the limitless riches to be found in the repository of nature.
Source: Nathaniel Elliott “Keats’s ’When I Have Fears,’” in Ariel, Vol. 10, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 3–10.
Bate, Walter Jackson, John Keats, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963.
Evert, Walter, “Imitatio Apollonius,” in Aesthetic and Myth in the Poetry of Keats, Princeton University Press, 1965, pp. 74-5.
Finney, Claude Lee, The Evolution of Keats’s Poetry, Vol. 1, New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.
Vendler, Helen, “Keats and the Use of Poetry,” in What Is a Poet? Essays from the Eleventh Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature, edited by Hank Lazer, University of Alabama Press, 1987, pp. 66-83.
Frye, Northrop, A Study of English Romanticism, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
Professor Frye is one of the most important and respected literary critics of our century: what he has to say about Romanticism is definitive for most students.
Reeves, James, A Short History of English Poetry, 1340-1940, New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962.
This study is short, but very concise and comprehensive. The few pages that this book gives to Keats’s life and work are clear and exact, giving the reader a sense of his place in history.
Ward, Aileen, John Keats: The Making of a Poet, New York: The Viking Press, 1963.
Ward, an American scholar, did a tremendous amount of research for this book, turning up new information almost a century and a half after the poet’s death.