One of John Keats’s letters reveals the poet’s preference for “a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts.”1 In much of his work, Keats exalts and emphasizes the physical, sensory, and emotional, while discounting rational thought. The sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” however, modifies this trend through an exploration of a writer’s fear of early death, something Keats himself likely experienced, as he died at a young age of tuberculosis. The poem’s form is particularly conducive to this development of a living philosophy. Structured as a Shakespearean sonnet, the poem develops the speaker’s preoccupation with physical aliveness, but ends with a turn at the heroic couplet, in which he accepts that he cannot attain his literary and romantic ambitions but that the process of thinking is sufficient.
The first quatrain describes one reason for the speaker’s fear of death: it would cut short his efforts to leave a mark on the world by collecting his thoughts and committing them to writing. The first line establishes his “fears” that he will “cease to be.” The plural “fears” indicates that his dread is multifarious and multifaceted. The line also highlights his lack of control over this potential occurrence, with the indefinite “may” and the phrase “cease to be,” the neutral verbs which seem to give the speaker even less agency than would the verb “die”. In the next three lines, the speaker says that he does not want to die “before” collecting his thoughts and committing them to writing. The first of these lines reads “Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain….” According to this image, the speaker wants to harvest the ideas from his mind like grain from a field. This metaphor implies that the speaker’s thoughts are valuable, and must take time to mature before he can collect and record them. In addition, this comparison, as well as the word “teeming,” highlights his preoccupation with physical aliveness and his longing to retain the visceral experience of life: he sees such life even in his thoughts, as though they were growing plants. “Teeming” means “fertile” or “bearing offspring,” literally describing the brain’s production of thought, but with a connotation of human or animal reproduction. The word can also refer to the swarming of creatures, adding to the sense of abundance and intensity of life. Keats strengthens his image with the assonance of long “e” sounds in “gleaned” and “teeming,” which lends a vivacious harmony and fullness of sound to the line. Keats goes on to describe the “high-pilèd” books which would hold his ideas, written “in charactery,” if he does not die before he fills them. The assonance of the long “i” sound and the break from iambic pentameter with the consecutive stresses of the spondee in “high-pilèd” highlight the grandeur of this stack of books, which represent the extensive and significant work that he believes he can produce if his time is not cut short. The image created by the verb “hold” in the next line suggests the permanence of written ideas, and the fleeting quality of those still unwritten – they need to be retained in books, because they would otherwise disappear after the speaker’s death, and he would not have left a lasting mark. Two commas contain the phrase “in character,” mirroring the way written words contain ideas, preventing them from flitting away. The line forms a simile comparing the books to “rich garners,” and, through a metaphor, likens the speaker’s thoughts to “full ripened grain.” This comparison is a repetition of the one in the second line, as highlighted by the connection through rhyme of “brain” and “grain,” but is here intensified, contributing to the emotional escalation present in the stanza. Reflecting this intensification of feeling, this line contains two spondees, and thus the most stresses of any line. In addition, the completion of the quatrain, as well as the complete ripeness of the grain, parallels the fulfillment of the speaker’s purpose as a writer if he is able to record his thoughts, highlighting his desperation to continue living.
The second quatrain escalates even beyond the first as the speaker becomes more aware of the possibility that he will not have the chance to live out a fate of love and glory – his broader reason to fear death. In the first two lines, the speaker seems to “behold, upon” the night sky a glorious fate foretold for him. The caesura in the first line, between “behold” and “upon,” creates a pause reminiscent of drawing in breath, and thus reveals the speaker’s emotional reaction – perhaps a sense of awe. Such emotion is relevant, as what he is beholding is so grand and far above him: it is personified as “the night’s starred face” and emphasized with three consecutive stresses. In addition, this personification of the night sky, which is usually presented as backdrop rather than as actor, brings out the speaker’s continued focus on aliveness, and recalls the Romantic poets’ belief that all of nature contains spirit.
In the next line, the speaker refers to the “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” that predict his future. “Cloudy” describes both literal clouds and the lack of clarity regarding what exactly the symbols are, or represent, and whether the “high romance” they speak of will ever occur. Thus, even as the speaker describes his possible fate, he is aware of the probability that his early death will prevent him from living it out. The multiple meanings of the word, “Cloudy,” and of several others are indicative of the uncertainty and lack of guarantee that runs through the quatrain. The adjective “high,” which modifies “romance,” also contains a double significance: the romance is to be great and glorious, but the symbols of it are above the speaker, out of reach. The word “romance” holds a slew of possible denotations, reflecting the various, or perhaps combined, fates that the speaker thinks will be his if he does not die too early. It can mean a sensational narrative of the extraordinary adventures of its hero, showing that the speaker foresees the possibility of glory. It can also denote the ardor and warmth of feeling in a love affair, revealing another part of the speaker’s potential future. However, “romance” can also sometimes refer to a wild, unsubstantiated fancy. Thus, even in the very word that describes the speaker’s hopes for his life resides a reminder that such a fate is not guaranteed him.
In the next line, the speaker becomes more explicit regarding the possibility that he will not live out his fate: he thinks that he “may never live to trace” the “shadows” of the celestial symbols that he sees. The indefinite verb “may” creates uncertainty, while the following “never” lends a sense of somber finality to the premature end of his fate, should it occur. This juxtaposition highlights the fact that only one of the possibilities – living out his fate or dying before he can – can actually occur, hinting at the acceptance of his death that the speaker will reach in the final couplet. This quatrain, meanwhile, employs a metaphor filled with uncertainty to describe the speaker’s potential fate: he would “trace” the “shadows” of the “cloudy symbols,” and do so “with the magic hand of chance.” This “hand” personifies chance, and the “magic” aspect endows chance with mysticism and superhuman ability, emphasizing the speaker’s lack of control and agency, as well as the chance that may determine his fate. In addition, this attribution of a body part to an inanimate concept highlights the speaker’s preoccupation with physical aliveness and human contact and sensation.
The speaker’s emotional escalation culminates in the third quatrain, as he describes a final reason that he fears death: the end of his love affair and of the pleasure of sensations associated with it. In the first two lines, the speaker describes the moment “when [he] feel[s]” that he will “never look upon” his beloved “more.” The stanza begins with the word “And,” in “And when I feel,” suggesting the buildup of emotion that has led up to this point. The word “feel,” emphasized and extended by the caesura that follows it, highlights the speaker’s emotional state, especially as this word forms a contrast with the word “think,” which precedes a similar clause in the second quatrain. In addition, “feel” can refer to the tactile sense and thus, like the hand in the previous quatrain, is related to human contact, especially its romantic aspects. After the caesura, the vocative “fair creature of an hour” appears – the speaker reveals for the first time here that he is addressing his beloved, whom he affectionately calls a beautiful being. This poignant detail suggests that, though the ideas in the first two quatrains increase in emotional intensity as they broaden in scope, it is a deeply personal description that, while narrower in scope, brings about the ultimate peak in the speaker’s emotions. While the previous quatrain speaks of love vaguely and generally, grouping it with personal glory into one word, “romance,” this quatrain reveals that the speaker is strongly and directly attached to his life because of his love for one particular woman.
The phrase, “of an hour,” suggests both that this woman’s presence marks a special time in the speaker’s life, and that their union is transient – she is with him only this hour. Thus, the speaker seems to be subtly growing more certain that his life will be cut short. The repeated word “never” reveals the escalation of his emotional reaction to the prospect of losing her. In the tenth line, it emphasizes the somber finality of the death that the speaker fears will prevent him from experiencing his beloved through a bodily sense: his vision. Thus, he sees love as a form of living through sensation; this connection to the values Keats presents in much of his work illuminates love’s importance to him. However, the word “more” in line ten shows that looking on her is a real possibility, and he has at least had the chance to experience it previously. In contrast, the next line-and-a-half, “Never have relish in the faery power/ Of unreflecting love,” describes a pleasure that is still more desirable and far less attainable, a disparity that seems to evoke great emotion in the speaker. Here, in line eleven, the word “never” starts the line with a stress to create an even harsher sense of finality than did its previous appearance, and lends the line a precipitous quality that underscores the escalating emotion. The word “relish” refers to sensory, especially gustatory, pleasure. Thus, it describes the same general type but a greater degree of enjoyment than simply “look[ing] upon” his beloved, motivating the speaker’s desire to be physically alive. “Unreflecting,” in line twelve, reveals that this love is organic and spontaneous rather than thought-out, highlighting the speaker’s view of love as experiencing life through immediate sensation. Meanwhile, the enjambment after “faery power” prolongs and emphasizes the second word, lending it all the more potency. The word “faery” carries the connotation of superhuman ability, making the “unreflecting love” seem intense and attractive. However, the supernatural aspect of “faery power” also causes it to appear unreal and out of the speaker’s control, and therefore unattainable.
The last phrase of the third quatrain leads into the final couplet, in which the speaker comes to terms with the impossibility of attaining romance and glory, and reaches an understanding of the importance and sufficiency of thought. The turn begins in the last line of the third quatrain, with a dash forming a caesura followed by “then on the shore,” and continues in the couplet, the first line of which reads “Of the wide world I stand alone and think….” Traditionally, the turn is contained in the final couplet of a Shakespearian sonnet; the early placement of this turn parallels the prematurity of the speaker’s death, and the resulting necessity of coming to terms with mortality earlier than usual. The shore of the world represents the speaker’s position on the border between life and death, though still on life’s side. The enjambment after “shore” puts it on the edge of the line just as the speaker is nearing the end of his life. “Wide world,” in line thirteen, marks an increase in magnitude in the imagery, from “shore,” which evokes a body of water, to the entire earth. Thus, this image sets the stage for the vast scope that the poem is reaching, helping the reader to comprehend the significance of the speaker’s conclusion. Such an edge seems to be an unstable, uncertain place, but the speaker is described as “stand[ing]” on it, rather than teetering or balancing. His stationary, controlled position marks a shift, in preparation for the conclusion, from the uncertainty and anxiety present throughout the rest of the poem.
He is also “alone,” in contrast to the love and fame he longs for, but he is stable in this state and thus seems to have accepted that he must part from his beloved, beginning the transition that culminates in the final line. In the line “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink,” the speaker admits that he will not be able to achieve the romance and glory he has described so longingly. The image of the sea introduced with the word “shore” reappears in the word “sink..” This image highlights the inexorability of the disappearance of love and fame from the speaker’s future – if the sea swallows something up, there is little anyone can do to stop it. The Romantics’ reverence towards the power of nature adds to the weight of this image. The metrical variation of “nothingness” mirrors this transition of love and fame: the word, forming a dactyl made up of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one and then an even less stressed one, itself seems to fade away. The consecutive stresses in the spondee “do sink” emphasize the finality of this conclusion. The last line contains no direct object for “think” – here, this verb is intransitive, unlike in the second quatrain, where it is followed by a direct object noun clause. Therefore, as further underscored by the enjambment that sets “think” apart from the rest of the sentence, the speaker has realized that though he will, indeed, die before he can attain love and fame, the process of his thought, whether or not it reaches definitive fruition, is enough in itself. Thus, a writer can fulfill his earthly purpose through thought alone; glory, romance, and the sensations of life, though desirable, are secondary.
1John Keats. “Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817.” Keats’s Poetry and Prose, selected and edited by Jeffrey N. Cox.