When I have fears that I may cease to
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the 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;
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.
In this poem, Keats talks about life, death, and everything in between.
But, in my opinion, this is not his best poem dealing with these two themes.
I loved "Ode to a Nightingale" the very first time I read it, and I think
it's one of the best poems about death ever written (it's my favorite work
of his, so I might be biased). As for life, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" has
always given me the strongest impression of Keats's love of living. Not
that I don't like "When I Have Fears...". It's just that I think it can
be taken quite literally at face value, not much hidden meanings or symbolism,
etc. On the other hand, a friend of mine thinks this is a really "deep"
poem, so maybe it's just my lack of insight.
At any rate, here's my own (not very good) explication of the poem.
Line 1: The meaning
is quite literal - when he has fears that he may die. For me, the phrase
"ceases to be" has a more permanent connotation than the word "die". Instead
of merely dying, it is as if his entire existence is obliterated from the
memory of others.
Line 2: He wants to write down everything that's in his head. He has so many things to say, but time doesn't allow him the opportunity to do so.
Line 3: "Charact'ry" is a Shakespearean word meaning handwritten or printed letters. Keats is afraid that there is no time for him to absorb all the knowledge and all the mysteries of the world. He fears that death will come to him before he has even known the meaning of life.
Line 4: "Garners" means storehouses and the "full-ripened grain" are the ideas which need to be reaped and written down.
Lines 5 & 6: From knowledge, he moves on to love. "Huge cloudy..." gives an impression of the sky, which in turn symbolizes something unreachable. Here Keats talks about an idealistic kind of love - the kind of love that everyone wishes to have, but most of the time isn't lucky enough to experience.
Lines 9-12: I think the widely-held belief is that he is referring to a lady whom he met at some garden or other when he wrote "fair creature of an hour". It may also represent an idealized image of the perfect woman for him, and he is afraid that he may never see her again and never experience the "fairy power" of love which can render him immortal. Another possibility is that he may be referring to his muse, and his fear in this case is directed at the loss of his poetry (poetic ability?)
Lines 12 & 13: In the previous lines, he talks about his fears, longings and dreams, and now reality intrudes, and he finds that without all the things he treasures most - that is, knowledge, love, poetry and fame - he is alone.
This is a Shakespearean sonnet. It's written in the rhythmic pattern of an iambic pentameter. The rime scheme is a b a b, ending with a heroic couplet.