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.