When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be, Summary of the Poem
The central metaphor in the first quatrain is the comparison between writing poetry and harvesting grain. The speaker compares the pen with an implement of harvest(“glean’d my teeming brain”) and books with the buildings(“garners”) where grain is stored. The metaphor expresses the first of the speaker’s three main concerns: that death will cut short his poetic career. Just as a person’s natural life spans youth, adulthood, and old age, so the growing of grain follows the natural progression of the seasons.
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For the poet to die young, however, precludes his chance of “harvesting” the fruits of his mind, which become “ripen’d” only as the poet ages. These fruits, which are poetic works, grant the poet fame, represented by the “high-piled books” in line 3. The fear of obscurity was one Keats carried to his death only three years after composing “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”. Though he had no way of knowing his life would indeed be cut short before he achieved the kind of recognition he sought, he echoes this concern in the final line of the sonnet. Lines 5-8
Some readers believe that the second quatrain continues to discuss the fear that death will cut short the speaker’s poetic career. These readers infer that the “high romance” symbolized by the night clouds is a literary concept, a level of artistic expression the speaker will never “live to trace,” or to realize. But another reading is possible. The night sky as a symbol for the ultimate questions that haunt man dates back to ancient times. The Hebrew Psalmist, for instance, reflects on die stars in Psalm 8(in the King James Bible) and asks himself, “What is man? While Keats’s use of the word romance” might suggest a literary meaning, die reader must also acknowledge more philosophical implications. The clouds move across die moon and stars, making “shadows” that recall Plato’s analogy of me cave wall. These shadows, cryptic and insubstantial as they are, reveal die greater mystery of the heavens. By living, the poet hopes he can divine the explanation for — die “Truth” of — the universe, and by extension me riddle of his own existence. Whether or not he lives to do so, however, remains at the discretion of “the magic hand of chance,” or fate.
If he dies too soon, he knows, he will not be able to solve the mystery of the heavens, to “trace their shadows. ” This fear that he will die in ignorance of the soul’s ultimate destiny is one mat goes far beyond the question of poetic fame in the first quatrain. It is also a concept mat remains unsettled by the final two lines of the poem — not dissolving, as do “love” and “fame,” to “nothingness. ” Lines 9-12 The third quatrain speaks of another kind of “high romance,” that of “unreflecting love. In these lines, the speaker first addresses his beloved in typically romantic terms(“fair creature”), yet the quatrain’s main concern is not the beloved at all. Instead, it is the self. The speaker’s meditation on his beloved leads instantly to his twin fears of time and death. Because of life’s fleetingness, his love is only “of an hour. ” Further, the consciousness of time — and of love’s transience — precludes what the speaker suggests is the best kind of love: love devoid of analytical scrutiny and therefore free of the fear of loss and death.
This kind of love has a “faery power” (in mythology, fairies are immortal) precisely because it is “unreflecting. ” Because the speaker’s nature is to be self-conscious, die opposite of “unreflecting,” he fears he will never experience this kind of love. Lines 13-14 In the end, the speaker’s recognition that he lacks the qualities of “unreflecting love” leads him to the state of alienation described in the final couplet. Because he is too self-conscious to love, he is forced to “stand alone. ” Isolated, he continues to “think. ” But thinking is, in this poem, equal to death.
As he reflects on time’s inevitable course, two things the speaker holds most valuable in life — “love and fame” — are shown to be insubstantial given the fact of death, and they dissolve into “nothingness. ” Thus the speaker stands on “die shore/ of the wide world,” at die edge of what we perceive in life but also close to what might exist beyond. In this state, there is only a hint of solace. While love and fame prove illusory, me “high romance” of the universe discussed in the second quatrain does not “sink” into “nothingness. It is this mystery, represented by the “huge cloudy symbols” of Line 6, that the speaker comes closest to in die poem, his fear of death leading to the ultimate question of his own existence. Overview Written in 1818, this poem expresses concerns that run through his poetry and his letters–fame, love, and time. Keats was conscious of needing time to write his poetry; when twenty-one, he wrote, Oh, for ten years that I may overwhelm Myself in poesy. By age twenty-four–only three years later, he had essentially stopped writing because of ill health.
There were times he felt confident that his poetry would survive him, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death. ” Nevertheless, the inscription he wrote for his headstone was, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water. ” Definitions and Allusions Line 2. glean: in this poem, Keats is using the meaning of collecting patiently or picking out laboriously. teeming: plentiful, overflowing, or produced in large quantities. Line 3. charactery: printing or handwriting. Line 4. garners: granaries or storehouses for grain. Line 6. igh romance: high = of an elevated or exalted character or quality; romance = medieval narrative of chivalry, also an idealistic fiction which tends not to be realistic. Analysis This poem falls into two major thought groups: Keats expresses his fear of dying young in the first thought unit, lines 1-12. He fears that he will not fulfill himself as a writer (lines 1-8) and that he will lose his beloved (lines 9-12). Keats resolves his fears by asserting the unimportance of love and fame in the concluding two and a half lines of this sonnet.
The first quatrain (four lines) emphasizes both how fertile his imagination is and how much he has to express; hence the imagery of the harvest, e. g. , “glean’d,” “garners,” “full ripen’d grain. ” Subtly reinforcing this idea is the alliteration of the key words “glean’d,” garners,” and “grain,” as well as the repetition of r sounds in “charactery,” “rich,” “garners,”ripen’d,” and “grain. “. A harvest is, obviously, fulfillment in time, the culmination which yields a valued product, as reflected in the grain being “full ripen’d. ” Abundance is also apparent in the adjectives “high-piled” and “rich. The harvest metaphor contains a paradox (paradox is a characteristic of Keats’s poetry and thought): Keats is both the field of grain (his imagination is like the grain to be harvested) and he is the harvester (writer of poetry). In the next quatrain (lines 5-8), he sees the world as full of material he could transform into poetry (his is “the magic hand”); the material is the beauty of nature (“night’s starr’d face”) and the larger meanings he perceives beneath the appearance of nature or physical phenomena (“Huge cloudy symbols”) . In the third quatrain (lines 9-12), he turns to love.
As the “fair creature of an hour,” his beloved is short-lived just as, by implication, love is. The quatrain itself parallels the idea of little time, in being only three and a half lines, rather than the usual four lines of a Shakespearean sonnet; the effect of this compression or shortening is of a slight speeding-up of time. Is love as important as, less important than, or more important than poetry for Keats in this poem? Does the fact that he devotes fewer lines to love than to poetry suggest anything about their relative importance to him?
The poet’s concern with time (not enough time to fulfill his poetic gift and love) is supported by the repetition of “when” at the beginning of each quatrain and by the shortening of the third quatrain. Keats attributes two qualities to love: (1) it has the ability to transform the world for the lovers (“faery power”), but of course fairies are not real, and their enchantments are an illusion and (2) love involves us with emotion rather than thought (“I feel” and “unreflecting love”).
Reflecting upon his feelings, which the act of writing this sonnet has involved, Keats achieves some distancing from his own feelings and ordinary life; this distancing enables him to reach a resolution. He thinks about the human solitariness (“I stand alone”) and human insignificance (the implicit contrast betwen his lone self and “the wide world”). The shore is a point of contact, the threshold between two worlds or conditions, land and sea; so Keats is crossing a threshold, from his desire for fame and love to accepting their unimportance and ceasing to fear and yearn.