WHEN I HAVE FEARS [Full Text & Notes]
By John Keats
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.
1. Briefly summarize this poem. What kind of poem is it?
“When I Have Fears” is a Shakespearean sonnet with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
Line by line summary:
When I think about the upcoming death whenever that may be,
I know my brain will hold many poems that I will not have been able to write yet,
And many books I have not yet written as well,
My brain will hold my words like a silo holds grain.
When I look up at the starry night sky,
I see signs of high romance within the clouds,
And I feel that I may never get to feel
That romance, because there is a great deal of good luck/chance involved in finding love.
And when I look upon a beautiful woman for an hour, (might mean that the speaker will like the woman just for a short span, or may speak of everybody’s mortality – a human life is a mere hour in comparison with the time the universe has been around)
And feel I may never look upon her again,
I feel I may never have the fairy power, (fairy power could refer to how love is amazing, or if you want to look at the more depressing side, our speaker could be saying that love, just like fairies, doesn’t exist)
Of unreflecting love; - Then on the shore
Of the wide world, I stand alone and think
That love and fame will eventually turn to nothingness (the speaker could be saying that love, fame and selfish desires mean nothing in the grand scope of the world)
2. Throughout the poem, we find a steady progression in thought. Describe this progression.
There is certainly a steady thought progression throughout the poem, although most of it centers around the speaker’s fears: the speaker starts by talking about being afraid that he will not be able to pen all the beautiful poetry/books in his mind before he dies. This essentially means that the world will never be able read all of his writings and he will never become famous. He might also mean that life is too short for everything he would like to do. He then turns his thoughts to love, where he understands there is a good amount of luck and fortune in finding love. After all, you never know where a chance meeting with a stranger will end up, yet, he is afraid that he will never be able to feel that love. He feels that love is fleeting, and he may never be able to experience passionate love. Finally, the speaker reflects on all of his thoughts, turning his mind to the grand scope of the world, thinking that his desires don’t really matter anyways. From ambition, to love, to a large scale scope of the world, the speaker’s thoughts progress steadily throughout the poem.
3. Is there a progression of emotion also? Explain
There is not much of a progression of emotion, if any at all, especially when compared to thoughts in this poem since most of the poem centers on the speaker’s fear. The poem reads as a sad personal confession of a person who is scared to fail to achieve certain things such as fame and love before passing away. While it ends on a grand scope with a more balanced feeling at the turn of the poem in line twelve, it seems that the speaker is just thinking of the grand scale of the world to pull his thoughts away from depressing himself even more. The thoughts he expresses thus ring hollow and don’t really seem to alleviate the speaker of his fears or desires, even though he is they would.
4. Most of the lines cause you to pause at the end; one of the most notable exceptions occurs in line 12 where there is a break right in the middle. What effect does that have on the poem?
The break in line twelve signifies the turn in the poem that is a feature in virtually all sonnets: a drastic change of thoughts or emotions within the poem. It is almost as if Keats was so depressed thinking of dying before he achieved his life goals that he needed to rush into his emotional reversal immediately. Thinking about not finding love for even another few words would be agony to him, so he started his turn half a line early. It made him more comfortable to think that his passions and desires were perhaps worthless in the grand scheme of things rather than think about something he wants, but he may never get.