John Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be"
Introduction and Text of Poem, "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 Shakepearean 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.
Keats' "When I have fears that I may cease to be"
First Quatrain: "When I have fears that I may cease to be"
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: "When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face"
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: "And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!"
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: "Of the wide world I stand alone, and think"
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.
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes