Romantic poet John Keats ends his 1848 Elizabethan sonnet,“When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be,” with two things he aspires to—fame and love—dissolving into to “nothingness.” This “nothingness” evokes feelings of not nihilism or a kind of freedom but depression.
Keats expresses his fear that he will die before accomplishing his two major goals: literary fame and romantic love. He worries that he will not be able to write and record with “his pen” all the ideas that fill his “teeming brain” to create the many “high-piled” volumes of poetry he wishes and plans to produce. He will not have a chance to earn or “garner” renown and accolades or “full ripened grain” for his literary accomplishments. Keats also fears that with death, he will no longer be able to experience romantic love; he will not be able to gaze upon his lover and feel the strong desire and magical “power” of love, even if it is “unreflecting” or unrequited.
To Keats, striving for fame and romantic love is a hopeless race against time. As a mortal man, he is a “creature of an hour” for whom death is inevitable. In fact, Keats’ family was plagued by death and poor health. His own father passed away when Keats was just nine years old and his mother when he was 15. Keats’ brother was ill while Keats was writing “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be” and Keats himself passed away from tuberculosis when he was only twenty-six.
The “nothingness” in the last line does not express nihilism, which is the belief that that life has no meaning, purpose, or value. As Keats noted earlier, his life’s purpose is to write; his life would gain value through critical acclaim and romance. His objectives are fame and love. The “nothingness” also does not evoke a feeling of freedom. In fact, Keats is dreading and lamenting his future inability to write and experience love. Death will steal the opportunities to 1. create volumes of poetry (and thus earn accolades, which Keats was already garnering in his career) and 2. have the “chance” to see or feel romantic love.
The final lines evoke a sense of depression as Keats’ ambitions ultimately seem futile. When he dies, he will be alone, removed from admiring critics and a lover. Keats’ use of the verb “sink” emphasizes that literary fame and romantic love will not only disappear but also decline and be buried with death. This word choice also implies drowning, as he stands alone on a “shore” and watches his goals “sink.” This downward movement—as opposed to floating or flying away—definitely elicits a sense of depression, hopelessness, and loss.