When I Have Fears Themes
by John Keats

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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...

(The entire section is 434 words.)