Literalist Explication of John Keats’ “When I Have Fears”

Literalist Explication of John Keats’ “When I Have Fears”


Keats “When I have fears” is a Sonnet written he wrote 1818 when he was 23 years old. This sonnet follows classic Elizabethan sonnet form, yet breaks from the convention on more than one occasion. In what ways does this deviation occur and what impact does it have on the work as a whole? I had no knowledge of Keats’ life or death previous to this analysis and therefore had the privilege to interpret his words as he intended without his story being told or distilled from what we read.

The poem begins:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Scansion of this first quatrain reveals it to be written strictly in iambic pentameter, establishing the rhythm and allowing the verse to roll easily, as well as setting the romantic style. Not only does this first line humanize the setting, but it also sets up the conflict for the rest of the sonnet. The first line should appeal to everyone that has had a fear of death on the afterlife. It may cause one to wonder how the author deals with thoughts of mortality; that perhaps they have a new insight into how to reconcile the inevitable. The enjambment between the first line and the second is significant for these reasons; however there are no commas or semicolons interrupting, allowing us to give pause, yet also showing one clear unbroken thought between lines on and two.

The second line clearly indicates that the writer is contemplating very personal reasons for thinking about their death. They wish to write their thoughts before they die and they fear that they may not be able to do so. Though personal, our author taps again into a vein within us all. The fear of a lack of legacy, to become extinct and never be remembered for anything done well in life, or to perhaps have never had an effect impact on any of life’s aspects. This fortifies the conflict having arisen in the first line, yet also pinpoints it to a more specific nature. The author uses the word “teeming” which also lets us know that their mind is full of ideas and stories he must complete before it is too late.

Look now at the next two lines, lines three and four:

Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

Why does the author deviate from iambic pentameter here in only the third line of the first quatrain? There is again an inference that there is much they have to say before they die, enough to fill “high piled” books, and that what they have to say is as rich as storehouses of ripened grain. In deviating from the established Elizabethan form of the Iamb in “high piled”, they stress how much more they feel they have to give the world though writing. A lifetime of thoughts and knowledge, linked with a fear of early death. The verbiage “full-ripen’d” could speak to the authors perceived lack of experience and that they need more time to develop the skills needed to write the many stories overflowing in their mind.

The sonnet continues the sentence into the second quatrain.

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d 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;

In these four lines, our author uses the environment to aid in development in a classic romantic style. From this point on, the piece takes on a dreamlike quality. Words such as night, cloudy, romance, trance and magic add a surrealistic air, making the imagination take over solving the problems of fear instead of attempting to logic though it. This is interesting due to the tendency of fear to spawn the imagination to further levels of fear, but imagination also has the ability to create possible solutions. The author makes mention to not having the opportunity to affect the fabric of reality as foretold through the stars, never to partake in the great adventure of life because he will be cheated by an untimely death. They look to the heavens and their imagination is inspired by the thought of unwritten epics, mourning that they may never have the opportunity to change those stars or bring those stories to life before they die. It is important to note that again the iamb in line six, by emphasizing “Huge Cloudy,” which indicates they truly believe they have stories of great magnitude to bring into the world, or that perhaps those cloudy symbols are the stars that represent the epics of the past whose shadows they fear they may not be able to add to them in time.

The third quatrain continues the sentence:

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

The first two lines of the third quatrain appear fairly conventional in meter, and when juxtaposed with the next two lines, in rhyme as well. The speaker addresses a woman, who we may believe is the one for whom this sonnet in intended. The woman is described as a ‘fair creature of an hour’, perhaps a reference the faery creatures he alluded to in the previous quatrain. She is only temporary “of an hour”, since he may pass before knowing her beauty or experiencing her love, ; language that furthers the sense of tension and immediacy. The third line of this quatrain, however, again breaks the meter with the beginning word ‘Never’, which serves to emphasize the finality of death. Love is introduced, a regret that an early death would prevent the author from seeing love for more than a brief moment, never to experience the passionate and overwhelming power of true and unconditional, or unreflecting love in the hearts of mortals. The classical love thought only to be induced by the power of the fey creatures of ancient mythology is something that this author concerns themselves with greatly, in a sonnet that focuses on the regrets of an anticipated early demise. Placing a word of strong finality in context to an age-old myth only enhances the finality further. In typical fashion, the hope or promise of resolution presents itself in the words ‘then on the shore’, leaving us to wonder if there is an answer to alleviate the fears of poetry and love we are drawn into through the lyrical quality and of the poem combined with its archaic word choice and imagery. The author leaves us wondering what they do when they have these fears of being incomplete in death; of not touching the stars or seeing a lover’s face and these is where they lead us to what we believe to be his “solution.”

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

All rhyme and meter are appropriate here that the ending couplet. Now we see that the entire sonnet is one sentence. One complete thought. This has the effect of making the passage seem all that much shorter. It is brief, but to the point and all-encompassing of what they want to convey. To stand on the shore of the world and think alone. A beautiful image of a writer with hopes and dreams of love and fame, hope and regret working to think their way through their fear to clear their mind of love and fame if only to keep focused on what they can control and what may not be. We do not, of course know what their thoughts are, only that they stand alone on the shores of the wide world, a precipice of unending imagination to inspire and hope that their work may change the world and that they may experience true love in their lifetime. The reader is left to believe, during this thought, that he will take some action that will relieve his fear. Ironically, his action is that of separating himself from others and thinking; the only apparent conclusion being that all his desires of life and love will dwindle in death.

3 thoughts on “Literalist Explication of John Keats’ “When I Have Fears”

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  1. I will be adding more to this, including allusions to figures and situations in his other poems, as well as good reasons for assuming his early death. I would also like to add my own thoughts as an addenda to this interpretation for context of my readers.


  2. I update this, adding quite a bit more. I would appreciate any literary analysis and assistance with MLA. This was a personal project, but I feel as I want to keep refining it further.


  3. Reminded me of my favorite poem by a scottish poet Lord George Gordon Byron. He died in 1824. The poem is called “When We Two Parted”

    “When we two parted
    In silence and tears,
    Half-broken hearted
    To sever for years,
    Pale grew thy cheeks and cold,
    Colder thy kiss;
    Truly that hour foretold,
    Sorrow to this.
    The dew of the morning
    Sunk chill on my brow–
    It felt like the warning
    Of what I feel now.
    Thy vows are all broken,
    And light is thy fame;
    I hear thy name spoken,
    And share in its shame.
    They name thee before me,
    A knell to mine ear;
    A shudder comes o’er me–
    Why where’t thou so dear?
    They know not I knew thee,
    Who knew thee too well–
    Long long shall I rue thee,
    Too deeply to tell.
    In secret we met–
    In silence I grieve,
    That thy heart could forget,
    Thy spirit decieve.
    If I should meet thee
    After long years,
    How shall I greet thee?–
    In silence and tears.

    Still wrenches my heart the pain he felt.

    Liked by 1 person

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