An Explication of "When I have fears that I may cease to be" - by John Keats
In the year of 1818, John Keats began showing the first signs of tuberculosis. His younger brother, Tom had died from it, and Keats had spent months nursing him prior to his death. The young poet had exposed himself to the dreaded disease. It was a time of intense speculation on nature for Keats. He reflected on the possibility that art, by uniting truth and beauty in a single sublime experience, might possess the power to overcome the world of pain and death. This would redeem man’s doubts and uncertainties through spiritual transcendence. Keats called this concept "Negative Capability" (Nylander). By identifying completely with an experience, the poet goes beyond the rational meaning of his own existence, thus doubts and fears could be overcome. As a Romantic poet Keats identified with human emotions within. This unconscious level of awareness enabled one
to reach a full appreciation and acceptance of emotion. Fear is an emotion in the poem and an integral part of experience. The identification of fear, or facing it directly, may help one to overcome it. Thus, the greatest fears that we possesses, such as death, may become revealed or faced, through the intense thinking that accompanies writing a poem (Napierkowski 294). Again, this is the unconscious level that is the creative force in humans as explored by the Romantic poets such as Keats.
"When I have fears that I may cease to be" addresses the philosophical concept in three ways. First, Keats expresses concerns that death might prematurely take away his art and his longing for the fame of being an accomplished poet. Second, he worries that death might interrupt his quest for man’s existence. "High romance" is actually man’s soul. (Napierkowski 294-295). This concern for the absolute, universal and God can be identified with the Romantic poets. Keat’s ability to use this philosophy in his poetry allows us to see nature, imagination and reality in a different perspective.
Third, he fears that death will come before he has achieved the transcendent experience of love without worries. The final lines are a synthesis of the problem in a way that precariously avoids despair. Keat’s fears turn to thoughts that both "fame" and "love" are doomed in the end to "nothingness." His final fear, which is the fate of "high romance" or man’s soul remains unresolved in the poem (Napierkowski 294-295). One gets a sense of the beautiful but sublime as Keats contemplates that which is most dear to him perishing.
In lines 1-4, there is a central metaphor in the first quatrain, as there is a comparison between writing poetry and harvesting grain. The pen is compared to a tool for harvesting grain "Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain." Books are compared to the buildings as "garners" where grain is held. This metaphor in these first four lines expresses the poet’s first concern that death will cut short his poetic career. As the natural course of life is youth, adulthood and old age, so the growing of grain follows the natural progression of the seasons. For the poet to die young would eliminate his chance of "harvesting" the fruits of his mind, which will become "ripen’d" only as a poet ages. These fruits which are his poetic works, grant the poet fame as in line 3, "Before high-piled books, in charact’ry" (Napierkowski 296). Here, Keat’s uses beautiful images in making us realize the transitory, that nothing is permanent.
There are two possible interpretations of lines 5-8. Some believe that in this second quatrain Keats continues to discuss the fear that death will cut his life short. "High romance" would symbolize the night clouds in an almost literal concept as the poet will
never live to "trace" or realize the night’s sky. This would also be characteristic of the Romantic poets in the belief that recalling such images elevated the imagination. Another reading which is more closely related to Keat’s philosophical ideas at the time, suggest that "high romance" is really referring to the truth of the universe. It is the age old question, "What is man?" By living Keats expresses his hope to one day be able to answer this question. Here the romantic concept of man’s relationship to the universe is clearly addressed. However, this will depend on the "magic hand of chance" or fate (Napierkowski 296). In essence, these lines are an attempt to examine his fear of dying before his soul reaches its destiny.
The third quatrain speaks of another kind of "high romance," that of "unreflecting love." This also addresses the romantic idealism of how does one realize a relationship? In lines 9-12, the poet first addresses his beloved in typically romantic terms as in "fair creature." Yet, the quatrain’s main concern really is not his beloved. Instead, it is himself. Life is fleeting and his love is only "of an hour." He turns inward in realizing that he may never be able to have more than what he has already experienced. He contemplates a love without the concerns of time and death is like that of a "faery power" because in mythology, fairies are immortal, or "unreflecting" on time and death. Keats fears that he will never experience this kind of love (Napierkowski 296). In this poem, ordinary thoughts are intellectualized and reflected upon with great intensity. This is a compelling quality of Keat’s poetry.
In the end, the poet comes to terms that he does lacks the qualities of "unreflecting love" and this revelation leads him to alienation, which is described in the final couplet of lines 13 and 14. It is although he comes back to reality. Another attribute of romantic poetry is this ability to convey both a dream or imagination with reality. He reflects on time’s inevitable course of the two concerns that the poet holds dearest to him, "love and fame." Given the universal knowledge of death, these two qualities of love and fame that he values so dearly seem insignificant, and so therefore, into "nothingness do sink. The poet is left standing on the shores of the "wide world," at the edge of what is perceived as life, but very close to what we might perceive as the "high romance or the universe which is discussed in the second quatrain. This perception of man in relationship to the universe and the absolute is once again expounded upon.
It is really in line 6, and in the last two lines of the poem, that we may understand the deepest fear of Keats. It is his own fear of death and his quest to search for the meaning of his own existence. In summation, the first and most pressing quality that Keats
would miss would be the opportunity to get all of his ideas down on paper. The title of the poem indicates that Keats did not consider himself immortal through his work. "Huge cloudy symbols of the world" is a desire to understand the unknown or God, which is his second concern. His third concern is narrowed down to the meaning of life. From the abstract he then concentrates on what he would miss if he actually died; love and fame (Napierkowski 297-298).
"When I have fears that I may cease to be" is a personal confession in many ways. It was inevitable that Keats was preoccupied with death. His father died of a skull fracture in 1804, when he was only ten. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was fifteen. Keats nursed his younger brother Tom as he too died of tuberculosis at the age of only nineteen. Keats was twenty-one and had witnessed death enough times for this to become a disturbing fear for him (Nylander). Keats is recognized as one of the most important poets from the Romantic movement. His fear of falling into obscurity, as stated in his poem proved untrue. In some respects Keats was driven to write all that he could, as if on a sacred mission. Perhaps his fears were an influence in this drive. It is ironic that his last dying words were actually an attempt to comfort his friend and caretaker Severn from his fears. He said "I am dying---I shall die easy; don’t be frightened---be firm and thank God it has come" (Forman 20). One may conclude that the fears that so haunted Keats about love and death as in this poem, were in the end, resolved