‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ by John Keats was written in 1848 and is his first attempt at a text in the style of a Shakespearean sonnet with 14 lines, the last two of which share the standard rhyming couplet. Although the sonnet form was primarily used to elevate the image of ideal romantic love, Keats uses the form here to evoke a much darker declaration that is almost a lament or perhaps the speaker’s own elegy. It is considered one of the most successful of his attempts in this style. The text is still unabashedly sweeping but it does not attempt to be anything other than a subjective look into the speaker’s mind. It is written in classical Iambic Pentameter with an everyday-speech feel to the narrator’s tale. This is a poem laced with a kind of romanticised death imagery, a theme that runs through much of Keats’ work. The speaker almost seems caught in a kind of preternatural twilight between life and death and is using this paradox to garner some insight. He says:
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance; (lines 7-8)
The speaker’s fear of death is not simply concerned with his own mortality but also with the thought that he will miss out on a beautiful mystery that will not lose its potency after he has perished. It is akin to the seeker who fears he will die before his quest is completed. The phrase ‘magic hand of chance’ implies chaos but also the exercise of the speaker’s own free-will, and how easily that will can be taken by an indifferent world. It is difficult to deduce whether the poet sees death as merely a veil between worlds or a morbid finality. Perhaps this is a contradiction that all artists are faced with when they choose to create something.
There is genuine deep sadness in the poet’s understanding of his own predicament. He is akin to a medium who is attuned to the resonances of another world, who fears that his abilities are dwarfed by his own mortality, that he will be pulled back from a full appreciation of the imagination before his pen has gleaned his ‘teeming brain’. This suggests that within his biology are secrets that could be unlocked if only he had enough time. The issue of time is an important one because the title alone evokes a kind of race against the clock. Time is in league with death, stalking the poet and threatening to collapse his physical life and all his works. It is perhaps a darkly humorous conceit that the poet deals primarily with a timeless fabric of imageries and yet is hounded by time and enclosed within it. He says:
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy 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. (lines 10-12)
Who exactly is Keats referring to? Who is the ‘fair creature of an hour’? Is it a lover, or perhaps poetry itself? The ‘relish’ that he refers to might imply a kind of self-love, an ‘unreflecting love’ that no one else can give. Is this an aspect of the poet himself, the imaginative Keats that will live on after his corporeal death? Is this the speaker staring into the reflecting pool like Narcissus, musing on his own self-image? It is important to remember that the poem is titled ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’, in that the poem is about the fear of losing one’s own personal identity to a larger force, be it ‘Nature’ or ‘God’ or ‘Death’. It is not the cessation itself that takes primacy in the text but the genuine fear of it.
Does Keats really believe that his physical death will be the end of him, or is he playing with the hypothetical reader’s understanding of the concept of death? By animating the text with a speaking or reading voice, the reader is forced to give life to the discussion of these fears. Therefore it can be suggested that the text creates a kind of poetic time travel, plunging the reader into 1848 and all of the speaker’s worries. Is this the speaker’s last laugh perhaps, a kind of immortality that is achieved by making the reader share the same doubts and fears? The last line is telling in that there is a bitterness that can be read into it but also a sense of defeated resignation. He says: ‘Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.’ Is this Keats’ own fame that he refers to, or is it the way a loved one is viewed through the eyes of someone that cares for them?
Perhaps it is not the theme of death that is being explored, but rather the theme of psychological isolation that can be viewed as a kind of living-death, an existential anxiety that comes with being an individual. It is curious that the last line has the words ‘to nothingness do sink’, in that sinking implies depth, which in turn evokes richness and texture, not the nothingness that is overtly stated. Perhaps the nothingness is seen by the speaker as a kind of poetic clarity, a nebulous energy that can take any imaginative form, in effect a metaphysical Idealism. This is merely subjective speculation, but for Keats it would have surely been a true romantic conceit, simultaneously disturbing and comforting.