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Give an example of the dark imagery known as Keatsian in John Keats' poem "When I Have...

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alanajohnson | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted October 8, 2011 at 4:50 AM via web

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Give an example of the dark imagery known as Keatsian in John Keats' poem "When I Have Fears."

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted October 8, 2011 at 7:45 AM (Answer #1)

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When I Have Fears

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
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. (John Keats)

"When I Have Fears" opens with Keatsian dark imagery and never lets up. Dark imagery peculiar to Keats is an imagery that reflects his idea that early perceptions of life embrace it as a bright, wondrous thing. As he described it in an 1818 letter to J. H. Reynolds:

We see nothing but pleasant wonders, ... there for ever in delight ... [till one must convince] ones nerves that the World is full of misery and heartbreak, pain, sickness and oppression - whereby this chamber of maiden thought becomes gradually darkened ....

In regard to the first line:

When I have fears that I may cease to be

The first line introduces the idea that the poet--in this case assumed to be identical with the poetic speaker (as opposed, for example, to the separate poetic speaker of dramatic monologues by Browning)--has fears that his death is imminent. This, by the way, is not the same as a fear of death: a robust young person may have a fear of death whereas Keats was ill and rightly felt death to be coming closer to him. This would be identified as Keatsian dark imagery as it is imagery that originates in thoughts about reality that are beyond the first blush of joy that makes life resemble what Keats referred to as a mansion housing a "chamber of maiden thought ..."; "maiden thought" may be read as first, youthful thought.

Another example of many of Keatsian dark imagery is in the middle of the poem. Though Keats speaks of "high romance," he laments that he "may never live to trace / Their shadows." This is another instance of imagery that begins in "pleasant wonders" then moves to "misery and heartbreak" by which the "chamber of maiden thought" becomes gradually darkened ...." In other words, the dark side of life throws a pallor of realistic though dark possibility over optimism and pleasant prospects.

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