A reading of one of Keats’s best sonnets
John Keats wrote a number of sonnets in his short life, and ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ remains a popular and widely anthologised one. Some words of analysis are useful in highlighting the relevance of Keats’s imagery in this poem, as well as the form and language of the sonnet. The poem is a Shakespearean sonnet rhyming ababcdcdefefgg, which is particularly appropriate here, since in this poem Keats is preoccupied with dying prematurely, before he has had a chance to write his best work and take his place ‘among the English poets’ (as Keats himself put it).
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
In summary, Keats writes about what he does whenever he is overcome by the solemn reflection that he may die before he has achieved anything of lasting value. The poet’s mind is depicted as awash with ideas and thoughts, a ‘teeming brain’, and Keats is like a farmer having to harvest the fruits of his fertile imagination. Note the word ‘glean’d’, as well as ‘garner’ and ‘grain’, all of which suggest the harvest – a time in the agricultural calendar where things come to fruition and the fruits of the farmer’s labours can be enjoyed. Keats isn’t at that stage yet. His poetry, he feels, hasn’t yielded any real fruit – or ‘grain’, to borrow his own metaphor. The books of poetry Keats is writing don’t yet hold the ‘charactery’ – the text, in other words – of his greatest or most ‘rich’ work.
All around him, Keats says, he sees things which he wants to write about: the night sky with its stars, described as ‘huge cloudy symbols of a high romance’, suggesting the ‘magic’ behind the stars which he, the poet, wishes to write about with his ‘magic hand of chance’. In line 9, Keats turns to address his beloved – most probably Fanny Brawne, whom Keats would have married if he had not died aged 25 in 1821 – and says that when he reflects that if he dies, he will never be able to look at her any more, or experience the ethereal power of love, then he feels all alone, and worldly love and fame cease to have any meaning. (When Keats refers to ‘unreflecting love’, he is making the point that love is emotional and thus not necessarily sensible or rational: it’s not the product of thoughtful reflection, but a more sensual and impulsive thing.)
Time – and the fact that the poet may not have much time left to make his mark on the world – is a preoccupation of Keats in this poem, and this is neatly captured by the urgency of the beginnings of many of the sonnet’s fourteen lines, which concern time: ‘When … Before … Before … When … And when …’ with the last of such words, ‘Then’, coming not at the head of a line – and not at the beginning of the final couplet, as we might reasonably expect from a Shakespearean sonnet – but in the middle of the twelfth line, cutting in early before the couplet has been reached. It’s as if time is even shorter than the poet had realised, or could realise. True enough, in three years, John Keats would be dead from tuberculosis.
Continue to explore the world of Keats’s poetry with our short analysis of his verse-fragment, ‘This living hand’.