Reaping Poetry: An Analysis of “When I have fears that I may cease to be” by John Keats

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.