When I Have Fears

by John Keats

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

The theme of human mortality runs strong in poetry, especially in the poetry of the Romantics. Still, to feel personally the specter of death stalking when one is twenty-two is not common. Keats had reasons for this fear, however. At age eight he had lost his father to an accident. A year later his grandfather and male protector died. While he was in his early teens, his mother died from tuberculosis. Exposed to so much death at so young an age, Keats was attuned more keenly than most to the transience of life. This sonnet poignantly gives expression to a very personal fear of his own early death, which would forever doom to oblivion his human longings and artistic ambitions. In retrospect, the quatrains tremble with prophetic import. In less than a year, Keats’s younger brother Tom would be dead of tuberculosis, and shortly after that Keats learned that he himself had contracted the dreaded disease. In little more than three years after writing this sonnet, Keats succumbed, his fame not yet realized and his love of a beautiful young woman never requited.

That Keats had been reading Shakespeare may be reflected in his choice of the Elizabethan words “charactery” (characters, or printed letters of the alphabet) in line 3 and “garners” (granaries) in line 4. In any case, the sonnet form clearly suited his poetic skill and purpose, for he wrote more than sixty poems in this form. As in many of Shakespeare’s own sonnets, so also in Keats the themes of love, fame, and death figure prominently. When he wrote “When I Have Fears,” Keats had not yet met the young lady, Fanny Brawne, with whom he would become so hopelessly infatuated. The “fair creature of an hour” in line 9 most likely refers to a young beauty Keats had observed in Vauxhall Gardens, an amusement park, a few years earlier and whom he addressed in another sonnet as “a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall.” In his imagination she had become the embodiment of absolute feminine beauty and loveliness, everything Keats longed for, simply to “have relish in the faery power of unreflecting love.”

As to fame, Keats knew that fame, should it come at all, would be directly dependent on the quality of his art. To develop his potential as poet, to ripen his poetry into a mature poetry of power, beauty, and significance, he would need time. In this sonnet, more directly and personally than in any other, Keats expresses his fear that he may not have that time, and therefore “Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

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