The Poem

In the sonnet “When I Have Fears,” John Keats gives expression to his fear that his young life may be cut off before he has a chance to experience the love of a woman and to develop and complete his calling as a poet. These feelings leave him with a forsaken sense of the vanity of love and fame. The very first line, “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” captures the reader’s attention at once, for the fear of premature death is universal. Especially when the potential of a richly productive and rewarding life is anticipated so intensely, the threat to its realization is all the more dispiriting.

The first quatrain focuses on the fear that early death will cut off the poet’s life of writing. His brain is teeming with subjects, ideas, and inspirations for his work, enough to fill the bookshelf above his writing desk as a legacy of his art. It is a typical human emotion to want time for the ripening and harvesting of one’s gifts. Death at a young age would preclude one’s lasting significance.

Focus in the second quatrain is related to the first: the fear that early death will kill the imagination, the essential resource of his writing life, before it has had a chance to mature. The poet looks at nature, at the stars and clouds as vital sources of romantic inspiration. He thinks of not living long enough to exercise and develop his imagination as an artist, that would equip him to render human experience deeply imagined and...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Forms and Devices

Keats’s studied reading of William Shakespeare, especially of the songs and sonnets, inspired him to pursue the perfection of his own poetic skills, including the mastery of the sonnet form as a supreme challenge to his artistry as poet and his mastery of its technical demands. This was his first but impressively successful attempt at a Shakespearean sonnet, with its four divisions of three quatrains, each with a rhyme scheme of its own and a rhymed concluding couplet.

The three quatrains of this sonnet are perfectly parallel, shaped as they are by their rhetorical and grammatical structure. Each refers to a different aspect of the poet’s confrontation with his own mortality, introduced by the subordinating conjunction “When”: “When I have fears,” “When I behold,” “And when I feel.” In characteristic Shakespearean-sonnet fashion, these three quatrains lead up to the “then” of the last two lines: “then on the shore.” Here the main clause of the poem counterbalances the three subordinating ones that precede it by expanding the personal pain to a universal lament. The solemn tone and heavy funereal beat of the couplet underscore the poet’s sense of desolation.

That sense of desolation is wrought especially through the cumulative effect of the poet’s choice of imagery and analogy. In the first quatrain, his choice of words such as “glean’d,” “garners,” and “full-ripen’d grain” obviously refers to...

(The entire section is 549 words.)