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 felt.
The third quatrain considers the death of romantic love. In this quatrain the poet expands his thoughts from himself and his potential fame as artist to his desire for love. It is not just the quest for beauty and inspiration in nature, but also his wished-for relationship with a beautiful young woman, that is threatened by death. Not to have the chance to fulfill oneself as an artist or to experience human intimacy as a lover is to feel one’s humanity fade into insignificance.
The concluding couplet expresses that sensibility of inevitability: a recognition of universal mutability. Human needs and aspirations confront mortality. The poet’s fear that his life may soon cease and with it the magic moments of “high romance” that inspired him both as poet and as lover leaves him defeated. He sees himself as exiled, cut off from all human endeavor and love, a lone figure on a forsaken shore, lost in thought. The inspired, feeling poet and lover has been diminished into a thinker, assaulted by fears that transform “Love,” “Fame,” and even self to “nothingness.”
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...
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