Analysis of Sonnet "When I Have Fears" by John Keats

Updated on June 13, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

John Keats
John Keats | Source

John Keats and When I Have Fears

When I have fears that I may cease to be is a sonnet that focuses on three essential issues of vital importance to John Keats: poetry, love and time.

  • Many associate the poem with the romantic poet's obsession with death but it is much more an exploration of the contrasting nature of life and the consolation of creativity, relationships and the natural world.

The speaker is concerned about the future it is true, and that concern is undoubtedly fuelled by the life circumstances John Keats happened to find himself in.

With a mother already dead from tuberculosis and a younger brother, Tom, showing similar symptoms - he was to die a year after the poem was written - little wonder that Keats had an eye on life's ticking clock.

He felt himself to be on the road to literary recognition, having published his first book of poems in 1817. He had a passion for poetry and had read with enthusiasm epics by Milton and plays and sonnets by the master William Shakespeare.

Some of Shakespeare's sonnets must certainly have inspired Keats to compose his, and there are echoes from sonnets 12, 30, 60, 64 and 107 which are mostly based on themes of love, time and the form When...then.

Being a romantic, Keats sought after the ideals of beauty and truth in his work and as a poet wanted to distance himself from the subjectivity and egotism of the modern groundbreaking poets, namely William Wordsworth, who he met several times in London.

Keats developed his own theory on poetic creativity and the response of poets to life and the natural world's beauty. He called it 'negative capability', the intuitive approach to experience where 'uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts' take precedence over facts and reason.

This heightened sense of joy and empathy, beauty and truth was Keats's raison d'etre. He much preferred this to cold logic.

  • When I have fears concentrates on the uncertainty of life and juxtaposes fear against creative potential and love. The speaker desperately wants to accomplish things in his life, to publish books of poetry, to experience true love, but knows that time may be against him.

This sonnet was written in a letter to a friend, John Hamilton Reynolds, on the 31st January 1818 and published in a book, Poems, in 1848.

When I Have Fears

When I have fears - First Quatrain - Lines 1 - 4

Line 1

When I have fears that I may cease to be gives the reader an immediate impression of the speaker's emotional state. This line represents a mind full of anxieties and dark forebodings and the reason why there's such pessimism is because of time and its limitations.

The single syllables in the steady iambic pentameter make a profound opening line. The word cease is a light phonetic echo of fears whilst the modal verb may suggests only possibility which in itself raises the question - We all die sooner or later so there is no possibility of not ceasing to be?

This uncertainty points towards the idea of an early death and is a parallel with the Shakespearean character Hamlet, who consciously said - To be, or not to be, that is the question.

In Keats's sonnet there is no existential question, only an answer.

Line 2

Using enjambment to full effect carries the meaning on without need for punctuation so the reader gets to know why the speaker has fears - they are caused by the need to harvest all what's going on in his brain.

Specifically, the speaker is afraid that he won't be able to write down all the poetry that exists in his head. The relation between glean'd and teeming is clear. Assonance connects them through sound and they also are part of the same harvest metaphor: to glean is to gather up the leftovers of grain following the harvest.

Lines 3 and 4

The metaphor continues. The speaker repeats the need for poetic fulfilment, this time highlighting a pile of books in charactery (thoughts expressed by symbol or characters) which hold all the ideas and potential the poet has.

Note the word garners, a storehouse or granary, used for storing the harvested grain. The plural suggests there will be many such stores (books). And the combination of alliteration and assonance, in Before/Book and high piled binds the idea, whilst the verb Holds implies a firm grip.

Note the dash at the end of line 4 which suggests more to come, the emotion building up.

The first quatrain sets the scene metaphorically. The season is autumn, Keats's favourite, and the harvest will be plentiful, if only there is time enough to gather it in.

Here we have an introduction as to why the speaker is so fearful of premature death. He wants to publish all the poetry he can before his time is up.

Second Quatrain - Lines 5 - 8

Lines 5 and 6

If the first quatrain gives the basic reason for the fears, the second broadens and deepens the process by which that poetic potential (the harvest) is realised.

The speaker is looking at the night sky, the constellations, relating inspiration to composition through the irrational and symbolic.

  • The caesura after behold is a catching of the breath, and the triple stressed night's starr'd face brings home the importance of the imagination in the construct of poetry.

The idea is that the poet relates to the spirit inherent within nature and the cosmos - the high romance - but that this is bound up with uncertainty.

Lines 7 and 8

The speaker again refers to the end of life and of how this affects his thought processes. The use of enjambment builds on the continued theme of poetical inability - he won't be able to trace / Their shadows - another caesura (comma) giving the reader food for thought.

  • The eighth line contains that mysterious phrase with the magic hand of chance which must relate to the process of poetry being a kind of conjuring act, the stuff of poetry being essentially intuitive.

So the first eight lines, two quatrains, are dedicated to poetic accomplishment. The speaker fears that he may not harvest all the verse that is inside him in time.

Third Quatrain and Couplet - Lines 9 - 14

Lines 9 - 14

The third quatrain moves away from poetic achievement to focus on love. The ninth line begins And when I feel.... so the emotional energy increases, contrasting sharply with think in the seventh line.

The fair creature of an hour is either an actual, beautiful woman he fleetingly met or some imagined lover. Various critics have suggested that it is the hour itself, a short passage of time, which the speaker feels passes too quickly.

  • But the tenth line perhaps solidifies the argument that this fair creature is a real woman and that the speaker is familiar with her beauty. Otherwise why the word more which implies that the speaker has looked at her on previous occasions?

The word never underlines the fact that this will be final. It's use in the next line as the first word (as a trochee, with stress on the first syllable) reinforces the idea that the speaker will not experience the unreal effects of spontaneous love.

With the enjambment of the eleventh line leading naturally into the twelfth the reader is then brought to a relatively abrupt halt midway through. This is unexpected but very effective.

  • Traditionally the final couplet is the turn, the conclusion; that is, lines 13 and 14 only, but Keats includes half of the twelfth line to end his sonnet.

The long vowels of wide world seem to prolong the solitude as the speaker faces the sea on that symbolic threshold of a shoreline. But there is no emotion in this end couplet, there is only thinking about the end of mortal time.

The culmination is total aloneness. The fame that the speaker hoped would be his, through his poetry, the love that he knows will not be his, drop slowly out of consciousness.

Analysis of When I have fears - Rhyme and Metre

When I have fears is a typical English or Shakespearean sonnet, that is, it has three quatrains and an end couplet making a total of 14 lines.

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme is as follows:

abab cdcd efef gg

and all the end rhymes are full. For example: be/charactery...brain/grain...hour/power.

Metre (Meter in American English)

Iambic feet dominate the sonnet, with the first syllable unstressed and the second stressed - da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM...and so on. This produces a steady rhythm common to normal speech.

  • But whilst iambic feet are to the fore, complete iambic pentameter lines are in the minority, as you will shortly discover.

Keats altered the basic iambic pentameter pattern in several lines to create variation and effect. This brings added interest for the reader because the stresses are not in the usual iambic mode.

Here is a full metrical analysis of each line:

  1. When I / have fears / that I / may cease / to be
  2. Before / my pen / has glean'd / my tee / ming brain,
  3. Before / high-pil / èd Books, / in cha / ractery,
  4. Hold like / rich garn / ers the / full ri / pen'd grain-
  5. When I / behold, / upon / the night’s / starr'd face,
  6. Huge cloud / y sym / bols of / a high / romance
  7. And think / that I / may nev / er live / to trace
  8. Their sha / dows with / the ma / gic hand / of chance;
  9. And when / I feel, / fair crea / ture of / an hour,
  10. That I / shall nev / er look / upon / thee more,
  11. Never / have rel / ish in / the fae / ry power
  12. Of un / reflec / ting Love— / then on / the shore
  13. Of the /wide world / I stand / alone, / and think
  14. Till Love / and Fame / to noth / ingness / do sink.
  • There are in fact only five lines that are pure iambic pentameter - lines 1, 2, 7, 8 and 10.
  • Line 3 - the second foot is a spondee - high pilèd - two consecutive stresses place emphasis on the pile of books.
  • Line 4 - the second and fourth feet are spondees in this the most stressed line of the sonnet, attracting attention to the harvest.
  • Line 5 - again a spondee in the last foot underlines the importance of the natural world, crucial for a romantic.
  • Line 6 - the first foot maintains the weight of this emotion, a spondee, double stress.
  • Line 9 - the third foot is a spondee, slowing things down.
  • Line 11 - the trochee in the first foot is contrasted by the pyrrhic (no stress) in the third.
  • Line 12 - the line is split by a spondee in the third foot, a caesura causing a pause.
  • Line 13 - conversely, pyrrhic is first followed by the reinforced wide world spondee.
  • Line 14 - in the fourth and fifth foot the repeat pyrrhic and spondee, nothingness fading away, emphasis on do sink.

When I have fear - Literary Devices

Alliteration

Repeated consonants close together bring added texture and echo-like sound for the reader:

Before high piled Books

garners..grain

think that

feel, fair

wide world

Assonance

Repeated vowels in words also add to varied sound and help with musicality. These are found in the same lines and between lines:

cease/glean'd/teeming/feel/thee

like/ripen'd/night's/high/piled/wide

Hold/behold/romance/shadows/alone

garners/starr'd

grain/face/trace/Fame

Enjambment

When a line continues on into the next without punctuation, the sense is carried on and the reader does not have to consciously pause, so building up momentum. This helps create emotion as the sonnet progresses.

Look at lines:

1/2 - the first line carries straight on into the second, relating those many fears to the action of writing.

7/8 - trace/Their shadows,

11/12 - power/Of....this is the start of the climactic sequence of enjambed lines.

12/13 - shore/Of.... the speaker is building up the tension.

13/14 - think/Till.... the peak is reached.

When I have fears - Personification, Metaphor and Simile

Personification

When human characteristics are applied to objects and things, as in line 5:

upon the night's starr'd face.

Metaphor

A figure of speech that describes objects and things in a way that isn't literally true. It can help explain, gives a comparison, as in lines 1 - 4 which is a harvest metaphor.

Simile

When one thing is compared to another, as in line 4:

Hold like rich garners (a garner is a granary for storing grain)

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      8 weeks ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Appreciate your visit. Keats the artist attempted to reconcile end of life and creativity. We can't all be artists but getting the most out of life is surely a worthwhile goal, despite the fact we will all one day cease to be.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 

      2 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      I just had word of the loss of a beautiful FB friend who chatted to me everyday and called me Sis. Your analysis of this piece feels bitter-sweet and appropriate. I am heading into the yard to see the cheerful little living things to take the edge off the sadness, to let it sink for a bit.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      2 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Appreciate the visit. Keats, the true romantic, his name writ on water.

    • threekeys profile image

      Threekeys 

      2 months ago from Australia

      Interesting article.

      As I began to read your introduction my mind flew to my English classes especially those times we "had" to learn about poetry. Unfortunately, poetry and I didn't get one another except for John Keats and his line of poetry-

      ..."truth is beauty and beauty is truth".....

      Thankyou for reminding me.

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