“When I have fears that I may cease to be”
John Keats’ sonnet written in 1818, was published posthumously in 1848. Keats’ fear of death was no romantic fancy. Of course, we have all wondered about death. It is the most inevitable of all of nature’s various devices. It has many devices, and among love, fame, happiness, and wealth that we all yearn for, the final inevitable end comes as death regardless of what one has achieved in life. Immortality is only an ideology that is granted by the living to the dead by virtue of their deeds or misdeeds. The works of a person live beyond the dark veil of the reaper, yet for the one who crosses that veil, the world of the living ceases to be in all sense. Fear of death is a poetic recognition of the beauty and frailty of life. Just three years after Keats wrote this poem, he was taken by tuberculosis, the same ailment that had claimed his mother and brother.
The poet’s background is essential to appreciating this poem, since even though it may be widely accepted that the speaker of this poem is anonymous, to assume that Keats himself is the speaker lends a far more resounding voice to the sonnet. As a poet, this sonnet suggests that not only was poetry Keats’ primary form of expression, he saw the purpose of his life in poetry. He draws an extended metaphor comparing himself to a farmer who would harvest his ‘teeming brain… in charactery’ with words into books that would fill a barn like ‘full ripened grain’. In our present world, it is mostly regarded as fulfilling our dreams, which often translates to our professions, passions, or often both. However, the intensity of the metaphor would amount to our ultimate goal in life. As a reader, one would pause to consider as to what does one consider her/his ultimate goal in life that death would come in the way of. It may be purely materialistic or it may even be considered that life is a pilgrimage towards ascending from the material into the spiritual sense of life.
Romance has been a driving force of expression in art. Existing in various forms, the appreciation of natural beauty is a key element of a romantic work. To see the manifestation of the most beautiful creation of Earth on the most eternal objects in the universe has been a fascination and a recipe for personification. Keats, as he is conjuring images of immortal romance or chivalrous love, looks upon the ‘night’s starred face’. As he is gazing at the ‘huge cloudy symbols’ upon the night sky, he turns to his primary device of expression and once again, wonder if he would live long enough to ‘trace their shadows with the magic hand of chance’. The magic hand of chance offers a glimpse into a deeper layer of the poem. On one hand, the poet claims that he wishes to write everything that he experiences and has experienced, even alluding to his work as a harvest of his life, on the other he admits the uncertainty that is fate. He wishes to live long enough to be a part of or witness fate’s whimsical choice of actions and events through poetry. Through these lines, the poet also appreciates that life is forever changing and never standstill. ‘Trace [cloudy symbol’s] shadows with the magic hand of chance’ acts to portray that not only is Chance (personified) omnipotent and we as humans can only see its shadows as it casts them for us, but also its choices to draw our lives is so uncertain that it may as well be magic.
To understand the relation between the poet’s fear of death, acceptance of whimsical chance, and his sadness for his ‘fair creature of an hour’, it is helpful to turn to Keats’ sonnet “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art”. In the sonnet, he wishes that his life were as unchanging and constant as the star so that he could spend his life eternally with his beloved, and if not, he would rather ‘swoon to death.’ In our present sonnet, he fears the same. Besides poetry, he would love to ‘look upon thee more’, perhaps forever as he suggests in “Bright Star”. Life’s transient nature is recognized by Keats in both sonnets. It is this realization that drives the poet to an isolated sadness whereupon he gives us an imagery of the poet standing alone on the shore ‘of the wide world’.
The final part of the sonnet is a couplet and before diving into the verse itself, a brief aspect of the sonnet’s form needs to be visited. This sonnet is primarily in the Shakespearean form, following the ABABCDCDEFEFGG rhyme scheme, wherein the volta (the turn) occurs after the twelfth line to present a resolution of the sonnet’s feeling. The first three verses in “When I Have Fears” express the poet’s fears regarding death and his wishes that would be left unfulfilled were he to die. As the poet is now standing alone on the shore of the world, a realization dawns upon him.
‘Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.’
Drowned by thoughts of his fears, he had wished of love and fame as a writer, yet when he looks upon the ocean, that is the world, his wishes are overcome with a feeling of futility. No matter how much one fears death or appreciates it, it is the final inevitability and in the face of death, nothing matters. This is the strongest part of the sonnet where the poet admits a sinking defeat to life’s end. The feeling of mortality is expressed as one that isolates every human being from not only others but also from one’s own dreams and passions. Keats’ admission of this feeling of isolation as one considers life’s greatest truth lends this poem a melancholic ending.
As readers, we might draw a sense of urgency and appreciation of all that is around us. While it is true that death can isolate us, it is a testament to the fact that life is a celebration of companionship and purpose. Through this poem, we can resolve to be virtuous to our loved ones in life and to pursue our passions as long as life permits us. After all, the ‘magic hand of chance’ can draw us our own clouds according to its whims, but as humans we possess the ability to make the most out of them.