John Keats, the poet of ‘When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be’, was obsessed with death. In a certain way, his obsession with death is not completely surprising: his brother was always very ill growing up, leaving Keats to nurse him throughout frequent and horrible bouts of tuberculosis, and he eventually died from the disease. Keats himself died very young – so his suppositions were not at all incorrect – but by age 24, he had more or less stopped writing his poetry due to ill-health. Keats’ fears about death are therefore not quite as strange as one would assume, given his background.
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Summary of When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be
This poem was written in 1818, only a few short years before Keats’ own death. It is primarily a poem about Keats’ fear of mortality, however in true Keatsian fashion, death is also the solution for more of what ails Keats. It would be prudent to remember that Keats’ poems have all, in some way, featured death; death of nature, death of love, death of memory, but death all in all. There are few poems, in fact, that do not reference the ending of things.
‘When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be’ is effusive with imagery, sensual in its description of the fears that Keats possesses, and short. Keats runs the gamut from worrying about dying before he is famous, worrying about the death of his beloved, and then deciding that death itself is not such a terrible situation.
Analysis of When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be
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;
Keats’ first worry is this: what if I should die before I have written to the best of my ability? It is not merely death, therefore, that worries Keats, but death in infamy – ironic, as he is now one of the most renowned names of English poetry. In fact, Keats was so sure that he would die without creating a ripple in the world of English poetry that his tombstone was made out to the one ‘whose name was writ in water’, thus showing the transience of Keats’ fame. He also feared that he would not be able to achieve his full capacity in terms of writing. He feared the limitations of his life.
The use of fertility words – ‘gleaned, ‘garners’, ‘full ripen’d grain’ – subtly reinforces the idea of the artist’s creation and his mind as a fertile landscape. Keats views his imagination as a field of grain, wherein he is both the man harvesting, and the product is harvested.
The second quatrain shows Keats viewing the beauty of the natural world. This natural world, full of miracles, is what Keats decides he can transform into poetry; the material that he works with is Keats’ own medium, the medium of nature – ‘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;’ shows the nature of Keats’ fleeting beauty, and contrasts the immortality of nature with the transience of Keats’ verse.
As an artist, he fears the lack – he is terrified that he will die before doing justice to the beauty of nature, however, paradoxically, he is also terrified of not achieving the artistry that he has dreamed of, of not doing justice to the beauty of nature, even should the opportunity to write about them present itself. The further reference to ‘high romance’ could also show Keats’ terrors about not finding the right person to fall in love with. Keats feared being lonely, as well, and the woman that he met and fell in love with – Fanny Brawne – was never consummated in a formal marriage, as her mother wouldn’t give him consent to marry. He died betrothed to Fanny, in Italy, though it was clear from their discovered correspondence that neither Fanny nor Keats believed they would meet each other again in Keats’ final year alive. From a letter from Franny Brawne to Frances Keats, ““All I do is to persuade myself, I shall never see him again.”
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 the final stanza of ‘When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be’, he turns to the idea of love. The use of the phrase ‘fair creature of an hour’ shows that even his love is not immortal; the crux of this poem is the short nature of love, of creativity, of everything that had given Keats a glimmering view on life. The opening of the quatrain with the word ‘and’ shows that it is an additional fear of Keats’, to not only have never achieved artistic mastery, but also to never see his potential lover again (which, as history shows, turns out to be true; he never did see Fanny Brawne alive again). Thus we get to the dual terrors that haunted Keats’ life – the opportunities provided by life, and his inability to live up to them. Keats is terrified of failure, more than death, almost; to have achieved love, and then to lose it, seems to Keats to be the biggest terror.
The final two lines give ‘When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be’ an overarching feeling of misery and despair – Keats finds himself standing alone, trying to understand these fears, and not managing. Thus, no matter if he attains these fears, or if he doesn’t, Keats will still be anxious and worried and life will still be scared.
From a letter to Fanny Brawne, 13 October 1819:
My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else – The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life – My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love – You note came in just here – I cannot be happier away from you – ‘T is richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet – You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more – the pain would be too great – My Love is selfish – I cannot breathe without you.
Yours for ever