When I Have Fears That I may Cease to Be – John Keats
Keats was a young man whose family was plagued by disease and death and as a result he was obsessed with death and was fearful of dying young. This fear is the main theme of the poem ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be’.
The poem is an English sonnet which is made up of fourteen lines divided into an eight line octave and a six line sestet. The poem as a whole has a regular rhythm and rhyme pattern. The first eight lines make up the octave and deal with one aspect of the poet’s fear, namely that he may die before realising his full creative potential as a writer. As discussed on the Brooklyn College website, Keats uses the imagery of a harvest in the first 4 lines of the sonnet to communicate his ideas. The image of his ‘teeming brain’ being ‘gleaned’ ...view middle of the document...
In the second four lines of the octave the poet talks regretfully of the fear that he will not have time to write about the infinite possibilities the world has to offer as material for his poetry. His is the ‘magic hand’ that will never represent or ‘trace’ the beauty of nature (‘night’s starr’d face’) and he
also fears that he will not be given time to develop and express the potent ideas, ‘huge, cloudy symbols’, that he perceives as grows older and more mature.
There is a shift at the beginning of the sestet where Keats expresses the fear that he may die before experiencing the magic (‘faery power’) of true love. It is evident that Keats is inexperienced as he describes his love interest as a ‘fair creature’, describing her as beautiful, but at the same time acknowledging that as a woman she is strange and unfamiliar to him. ‘Of an hour’ serves both to emphasise the newness of the relationship and to remind us of the fear that the poet has limited time in which to explore these newfound feelings. The fear that time is limited for Keats is emphasised by the shortening of this quatrain to three and a half lines, allowing the turn to occur earlier than usual.
The turn, or resolution, occurs when Keats reflects on his dilemmas and his fears. The image of him standing ‘on the shore of the wide world’ represents him on the threshold between two states of being. Behind Keats is the initial state he was at, at the beginning of the sonnet, fearing his coming death and wishing for fame and love, and the second state is the resolution to his dilemma – and the one he ultimately chooses, where he accepts the inevitability of death and acknowledges the unimportance of his desires for fame and love.
Although obsessed with death and dying young, Keats is able, through reflection, to acknowledge the futility of his fears and to move beyond them into ‘the wide world’ beyond.