John Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be"

Updated on April 16, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Engraving of John Keats

Source

Introduction and Text of "When I have fears that I may cease to be"

The Shakespeare sequence of 154 sonnets often employs the use of when/then clauses to frame the discourse. Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be" uses that same technique. The speaker of the sonnet is addressing the issue of the brevity of life.

As John Keats' widely anthologized sonnet is based on the Shakespeare or English (also known as Elizabethan) style, the poem dramatizes the speaker's musing about dying before he can reach his goals.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred 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.

Reading of "When I have fears that I may cease to be"

Commentary

This sonnet dramatizes the speaker's consternation about dying before he can fulfill his writing ambitions.

First Quatrain: Lamenting Looming Death

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

In the opening quatrain, the speaker begins his lament that he is likely to die before he is able to accomplish all the writing goals that he has set for himself. The speaker's "teeming brain" is choked full of imagery, thoughts, notions, and information which he desires to share in many books that all those prompts might inspire.

The speaker wants to write and pile high his products. He hopes to fill his tomes with writing that is mature, with well-developed characters. He wants to examine his own thoughts and then mold them into a steady stream of writing that the public will devour with relish.

Metaphorically, the speaker likens his notions to harvested grain that is stored in large bins (silos). But then through the construction of the when clause, he suggests that sometimes he fears that he will die before he has had a chance to complete his works. The speaker's goals for his piled high books filled with his pearls of wisdom may have to go unachieved because of dastardly death's intrusion.

Second Quatrain: Missing Natural Phenomena

When I behold, upon the night’s starred 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;

The speaker then provides another when clause, featuring more things that cause him to have fears that he will die and thus miss out on much. He likens the stars to "symbols of high romance." The speaker avers that if he dies too young, he will miss out of observing the heavens. He hopes to be able to understand how the stars can appear so easily as if by some incomprehensible magic.

The speaker thus feels consternation that he may not be able to "trace / Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance." The speaker wishes to be able to study and contemplate the romantic possibilities of all things that appear before him.

Third Quatrain: Doomed to Brevity

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

In the final quatrain, the speaker examines his feelings regarding his possible premature failure to complete a true romantic, love relationship. Referring to a possible partner in such a relationship as "fair creature of an hour," he is admitting that all earthly love relationships are doomed to brevity.Yet the speaker still laments that he may never even experience that much, "Never have relish in the faery power / Of unreflecting love!"

The speaker laments the odds that he may never feel the kind of love that makes the individual abandon himself to pure feeling.Then the speaker abruptly ends his when speculations to begin his answer or what happens when he has all of these negative contemplations.

Couplet: Airy Nothing and Fading Glory

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

After having experienced all those negative thoughts about dying before he can achieve this writing goals, he goes on thinking and musing until he comes to the conclusion that both love and fame amount to an airy nothing.

The speaker concludes that individuals are simply alone his this material world. Love is impossible because it invariably ends with separation and death. He also becomes aware of the fact that fame is nothing more than a fading glory.

John Keats

Source

Life Sketch of John Keats

John Keats' name is one of the most recognizable in the world of letters. As one the most accomplished and widely anthologized poets of the British Romantic Movement, the poet remains a marvel, having died at the early age of 25 and leaving a relatively scant body of work. That his reputation has grown more stellar through the centuries attests to the high value placed on his poetry. Readers have come to recognize that Keats works are always enjoyable, insightful, and pleasantly entertaining.

Early Years

John Keats was born in London, October 31, 1795. Keats' father was a livery-stable owner. His parents both died while Keats was still a child, his father when Keats was eight years old, and his mother when he was only fourteen. Two

London merchants took up the responsibility of raising the young Keats, after being assigned to the task by Keats' maternal grandmother. Thus Richard Abbey and John Rowland Sandell became the boy's principal guardians.

Abbey was a wealthy merchant dealing in tea and took on the main responsibility for Keats' rearing, while Sandell's presence was fairly minor. Keats attended the Clarke School at Enfield until he was fifteen years old. Then guardian Abbey ended the boy's attendance at that school so that Abbey could enroll Keats in medical study to become a licensed apothecary. Keats, however, decided to forgo that profession in favor of writing poetry.

First Publications

Lucky for Keats, he became acquainted with Leigh Hunt, an editor of influence at the Examiner. Hunt published Keats' two most widely anthologized sonnets, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer" and "O Solitude." As Keats' mentor, Hunt also became the medium through which the Romantic poet gained acquaintance with the two most important literary figures of that period, William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Through the influence of that literary royalty, Keats was able to publish his first collection of poems in 1817, at the young age of 22.

Shelley recommended to Keats, likely because his young age, that the young poet should hold off on publishing until after he had amassed a more sizable collection of works. But Keats did not take that advice, perhaps out of the very fear that he would not live long enough to amass such a collection. He seemed sense that his life would be short.

Facing the Critics

Keats then published his 4000-line poem, Endymion, only a year after his first poems at been brought out. It appeared the Shelley's advice has been spot on when critics from the two most influential literary magazines of the period, The Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, immediately attacked the young poet's herculean effort. Although Shelley agreed with the critics, he felt obliged to make it known that Keats was a talented poet despite that work. Shelley likely went too far and blamed Keats' worsening health issues of the critical attacks.

In the summer of 1818, Keats engaged in a walking tour in the north of England and into Scotland. His brother Tom was suffering from tuberculosis, so Keats retuned home to care for his ailing sibling. It was around his time that Keats met Fanny Brawne. The two fell in love, and the romance influenced some of Keats' best poems from 1818 to 1819. Also during this time, he was composing his piece titled "Hyperion," which is a Milton influenced Greek creation story. After his brother died, Keats ceased working on this creation myth. Later the next year, he took up the piece again, revising it as "The Fall of Hyperion." The piece remained unpublished until 1856, some 35 years after the poet's death.

One of Most Famous British Romantics

Keats published a further collection of poem in 1820, titled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. In addition to the three poems that make up the title of the collection, this volume includes his incomplete "Hyperion," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode to a Nightingale," three of his most widely anthologized poems. This collection received great praise from such literary giants as Charles Lamb, and others, in addition to Hunt and Shelley—all wrote enthusiastic reviews of the collection. Even the incompleted "Hyperion" was eagerly accepted as one of the finest poetic achievements of British poetry.

Keats was now very ill with tuberculosis in its advanced stages. He and Fanny Brawne had continued to correspond, but because of Keats' ill health as well as the considerable time it took for him to engage his poetic muse, the two has long considered marriage an impossibility. Keats physician recommended that the poet seek a warm climate to alleviate suffering from his lung disease, so Keats relocated from cold, wet London to the warmth of Rome, Italy. The painter, Joseph Severn accompanied Keats to Rome.

Keats is one of the most famous names in the British Romantic Movement, along with, William Blake, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, George Gordon, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Felicia Dorothea Hemans, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charlotte Turner Smith, and William Wordsworth, despite Keats' dying at the young age of 25 years. The young poet succumbed to tuberculosis, the disease that had plagued him for several years, in Rome on February 23, 1821. He is buried in Campo Cestio, or the Protestant Cemetery or the Cemetery for Non-Catholic Foreigners.

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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