Poetry Review, John Keats, When I Have Fear

25 Mar

If there was an award for the most awful life for poets, Keats would have certainly been in the running.    His father died from a fall from a horse when he was very small.  Then his mother ran away for many years.  She returned, sick with tuberculosis, and died soon after.  Keats starts on the track for becoming a Doctor, but quits to devote his life to poetry.  His favorite brother caught tuberculosis, and Keats nursed him until his death.  Then Keats got tuberculosis.  He ended up dying in agony, begging to be allowed to die for good and forever.

So “When I Have Fears” is not some healthy person worrying about the off chance that they might die before they reach their peak.  Keats wrote this after his brother’s death, and probably after he found out he had tuberculosis as well.

So the first quatrain is his first fear–That he will “cease to be” before his pen has gleamed his teeming brain.   So he’s got a lot of ideas that won’t come to fruition.  He talks about being published, and compares his imaginary works to “full ripened grain.”    Ripened is a good word here, because it signifies something growing perfect in time, an item that Keats does not have.

The second quatrain is his second fear–that he will never seek out the mysteries of the world through art.  He looks at “night’s starred 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.”    He’s comparing himself to an artist, and in copying these night skies he could learn from them, however, he won’t be able to.

The third is Keats’s fear of never knowing love–that he can only know a woman for an hour and never see her again.  The reason being with him being so sickly and mortal, he could not really have a stable relationship with anybody.  He can “never relish in the faery power/of unreflecting love!”  To Keats, love is something unreflecting, by which he means not returning to the self, it just goes out.  Unreflecting can also mean, not thought out, or not of the mind.  He will never know passion.

So when he thinks on these three fears “then on the shore/Of the wide world I stand alone, and think/Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”   What’s interesting here is that not only is fame fleeting from Keats’s point of view, but so is love–in the grand scheme of things love disappears, it’s a thing of the moment, it does not conquer all but fades away.   Oh, and on the shore–I’ve never personally heard this, but I think of on the shore between life and death, like the shores of the river Styx–so when he is considering his mortality, Love and Fame do not matter anymore.  He’s not saying this is a bad thing, he’s just saying it like it’s a fact–even if he had all the love and all the fame a person can ask for, he would still be in the same position.  Love and fame would not make it easier.

It’s the conclusion that’s the kicker here–saying love ultimately doesn’t matter very much is really hard for Western readers to stomach, now and then.  After all, love is one of the primary reasons people stereotypically write poetry in the first place.   However, in regards to romantic love, he’s kind of right.  It’s nice to see people in love, and it’s sad when they die without it, but at the same time that sort of love is only crucial to the people in the relationship as long as one of them lives.

Also, thinking of Keats as someone who knew death was looming, fearing all the things he would not experience is not exactly living life.  Perhaps his fears about these things took away from the pleasures he did have time for, and this was his way of coping.    It kind of casts a shadow over our petty wants, doesn’t it?

2 Responses to “Poetry Review, John Keats, When I Have Fear”

  1. emilyardagh April 5, 2013 at 4:11 am #

    A very interesting read. This is one of my favourite poems

    • pewterbreath April 5, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

      I find it to be strangely comforting myself. Thanks!

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