When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be: (The Terror of Death)

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When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
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 faery 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.

Critical Appreciation & Analysis

The poet’s poetic gifts

      The first idea in the poem is that the poet possessed remarkable poetic gifts. His imagination is so alive that his brain is always crowded with a thousand fancies and poetic thoughts The poet desires to glean these thoughts and so put them into his verses. He wants to write book after book expressing these poetic fancies. He feels that he can be as prolific a poet as a former who reaps a rich harvest and gathers his grain into granaries.

Poet’s sense of romance

      The second main idea is that the quality of the poet’s imagination is essentially romantic and that his genius is essentially spontaneous. The sight of the clouds and the stars arouses in his heart the feelings of a high romance, and he knows that he has magical gifts of expression.

Poet’s love

      The third main idea is that of the poet’s love. His love is ecstatic and lofty. It can lift him out of himself and make him completely oblivious of his surroundings.

Poet’s fear of premature death

      Opposed to these ideas—which reflect the poet’s desire for poetic fame and love is the poet’s strong fear that he will die prematurely. He feels—that he would be given time enough to exercise his magic power of poetry, not to lose himself much longer in his deep emotion of love.

Nothingness of love and fame

      This opposition between the two groups of ideas—(1) the poet’s powers, and (2) their non-fulfillment because of early death—gives rise to the central idea in the Sonnet expressed in the concluding couplet. This idea is the same as in Ozymandias—that human greatness is nothing. ‘Love and Fame’, says the poet, ‘sink to nothingness’ when he thinks of them side by side with his approaching end. Death conquers all, death consumes all, death ends all.

Form

      This idea is presented here in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, with its usual division into three quatrains and a couplet. The rhyme scheme is of course a b a b c d c d e f e f g g. The first twelve lines express the poet’s desire for poetic expression and for love; the last two lines bring out the feeling that arises because of the poet’s fear of an early death—the feeling of the vanity of human life and aspirations.

Notes of sadness

      A note of sadness, of regret, of great gifts wasted, of immense powers frustrated by death, runs through the poem It is a wistful sonnet in which the poet’s passion is restrained by the sonnet form, the choice of rich images and the Transmutation of personal grief into the general tragedy of human existence. This wistfulness pervades the whole poem and imparts to it its peculiar charm

Tragic, not pathetic

      This poem is tragic in the highest sense of the word. It is not merely pathetic—we do not merely pity the poet, we admire him also. The poem has that dignity that restraint, that stateliness of movement and the majestic flow of verse which we associate with tragedy. There is nothing sentimental about the poet’s regret. It does not leave upon us any sense of the weakness of the poet. In the last two lines, the poet rises from the particular to the universal and places his personal tragedy against the background of eternity. This imparts to the sonnet that sense of sublimity that we associate with tragedy.

Beauty of expression

      The poem is exquisite in its phrasing. The images and metaphors occur with an inevitability which we associate with great poetry. Such phrases as “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”, “magic hand of chance” and “the faery power of unreflecting love” are packed with suggestions and have a depth of meaning which no paraphrasing can ever gauge.

Shakespearean touch

      This poem has very aptly been called the most Shakespearean of Keats’s poems. It has in it that rounded perfection, that quite a spontaneity, that maturity of touch, that ripeness, that richness of imagery and dignity of theme which we associate with Shakespeare at his best. The last image of the poet standing alone on “the shore of the wide world” has in it the suggestive vastness of Shakespeare.

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