When I Have Fears – John Keats A Literary Analysis

Published 28 Apr 2017

When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be ( 1818; 1848). This sonnet, is possibly John Keats first use of the Shakespearean form, is usually regarded as a prophecy in metaphoric form, of his early death. Shakespearean, too, in theme. He depicts a desolate shore which anticipates John Clare and Matthew Arnold in its emptiness. The sonnet is all the more poignant when we know that Keats died at the age of 25, a tragically young age, with a poetic career of even greater fulfillment in front of him. He was the Romantic poet par excellence: his continuing dedication to poetry in the knowledge that he was dying (from tuberculosis) made him a symbol for the Romantic Movement. At the time of his death, the first generation of Romantics, Wordsworth and Coleridge, could no longer write the intense poetry of their early years. He became an emblem of transience, and Shelley’s visionary essay Adonais on Keats’s death depicts the exquisite early flowering and then sudden death of Keats, the man and poet.

It is evident from this sonnet, one of his most serious, that to Keats the beauty of the marbles consists in their capacity to set the imagination into such play as to arouse anew in the spectator the vision of life the artist had originally caught and then portrayed in the plastic figures upon which he worked. This for the observer is the moment of arrival at “that trembling delicate and snail-horn perception of beauty,” of which Keats writes elsewhere the moment of realization of the identity of form with content, of beauty with truth. It is the instant of the completed fabric of the creative imagination, either for the artist or for him who understands his art. That is, in looking upon a Grecian urn the creative imagination of the observer arrives at the same point as did the creative imagination of the artist a delicate, snail-horn perception of the truth the Idea expressed in the urn; hence the beauty of it. The mere external aspects of an urn would not make it beautiful, a thing of art, to Keats. It is rather that the symbols executed there, themselves a product of mind and soul, still contain within themselves a dynamic something, itself the offspring of imaginative insight, that has the power to set aflame the mind and soul of an imaginative observer: that is true art, that, beauty; that is truth preserved in enduring form for the ages. “For soul is form and doth the body make.

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The poetry of Keats may be limited because of its very concentration, its rapt attention to detail and absorption in beauty. But never has poetry been enclosed in an atmosphere of purer enchantment. In ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’, the poet imagines a dissolution of consciousness, of thought, thinking ’till thought is blind’. Indeed, in a letter to J. H. Reynolds, Keats comments on writing ‘some lines’ in Burns’s cottage, but says that ‘they are so bad I cannot transcribe them’, and to Benjamin Bailey he comments that ‘I had determined to write a Sonnet in the Cottage. In any poem, but perhaps especially in the compact territory of a sonnet, every word takes on full weight and significance. Metaphorical construction can provide both a method of organization and an avenue of development, as relationships multiply through the course of the poem. In a sonnet such as “That time of year,” the metaphorical pattern acts as the backbone, the controlling pattern of the sonnet itself, further reinforced by syntactic patterns and repetitions. In “When I have fears that I may cease to be” by John Keats (1795–1821), metaphor is used similarly to provide fundamental structure.

In, When I have fears that I may cease to be, we can see the widening implications of the representational mode Keats learned from Edmund Kean. When I have fears presents a moment of crisis in which the speaker considers the consequences his current state of mind will have on future endeavor. Here, though, Keats is at his most “negatively capable,” in the sense that the poem represents a Kean-like “instant feeling” of high uncertainty, expressed precisely from the “when” of that uncertainty’s occurrence. And while the sonnet does not represent a moment of strictly cultural reception, Keats relies on the same understanding of subjective experience to convey the encounter.

Keats uses the Shakespearean form for the first time in this, his thirty-sixth, sonnet, and the poem is the most compressed expression to this point of negatively capable lyricism. (The observation is supported by the fact that Keats composed When I have fears shortly after composing the Lear sonnet’s Shakespearean six-like closing.) The three quatrains–beginning “When,” “When,” and “And when”–each represent and speak from a temporal moment, a time when, and an affective state, a sense of being as. Each relates the speaker’s experience of an action unaccomplished, a potential unfulfilled. In the first quatrain the “high pil’d books, in charactry” do not “Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain.” In the second, the “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” remain untraced. And in the third, the “fair creature of an hour” is never looked upon more. The double connotation of “when” as moment and as state–and its repetition in all three quatrains–gathers and suspends the effect of each act of perception (the having of fears, the beholding of cloudy symbols, and the feeling of loss of the beloved) until the extended final couplet’s expression of “instant feeling”: standing alone “on the shore / Of the wide world” and thinking, without an object of thought.

In When I have fears, the poet does not reflect on past achievement or consider the promise of future accomplishment; instead, he publicizes a moment of unmitigated uncertainty in which to “think” is to stand paralyzed until “love and fame to nothingness do sink.” What is most “theatrical” about the poem, in the sense I have described in this essay, is what is most Shakespearean and most Kean-like about it: not Keats’s removal to a “self-distancing point of view” (Rzepka, The Self as Mind 168), but his ability to represent individual subjectivity as a suspended relation between possibilities for self-realization. By naturalizing a language of feeling unmarred by narrative or explanatory context, the poet communicates his crisis as though it were contemporaneous with the reading act. “Negative capability,” so often described by Keatsians as a private mode of cultural production, is more properly understood here as a public mode of cultural reception. The poem both depicts (in Keats) and encourages (in the reader) a scene of reception rife with uncertainty and doubt, imagining a new kind of relation between the poet’s private experience and the public to which he speaks.

Edmund Kean played a crucial role in shaping both Keats’s attitudes towards his own social rank and his ideas about the changing nature of cultural experience. Educated to an understanding of Kean by Hazlitt’s theatrical criticism, Keats’s attention to the actor in letters and theatrical reviews in late 1817 and early 1818 coincided with and, I will argue, occasioned his thoroughgoing revision of the poet’s role as a cultural intermediary for readers. Keats’s poetic figuration of cultural experience crystallizes in a new way in this poem, which bear the marks of Kean’s influence first because they render the poet a creature of unapologetic uncertainty, and second because the speaker communicates to the public from within the experience of that uncertainty. As a subject encountering both material and imagined objects–Shakespeare’s text, the cloudy symbols of “high romance”–Keats refuses to present himself as a cultural master, or even, like Wordsworth, as an already developed speaker reflecting back on growth that authorizes current speech. Like Kean, he is a teller of the instant feeling, in which past experience and future potentiality intersect, each without gaining dominance over the other. The readers of the poems, like the Keatsian watcher of Kean, feel that the utterer is thinking of the past and the future, while speaking of the instant.


The ability Keats begins to display in these poems–placing his speaker within the moment of affective reception “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”–will propel his more intense reworking of poetic expression in the odes, his revision of “romance” in The Eve of St. Agnes, and his refiguration of the poet’s relationship to history in The Fall of Hyperion. The “change” that “has taken place” in Keats’s intellect at this historical point should not be attributed solely to the influence of Kean. But the change in his thinking about poetry’s capacity to represent lower-class experience, in a time when divisions between high and mass culture were becoming increasingly pronounced, bears a striking resemblance to Kean’s public embodiment of a new performing subject. Hazlitt commented that Kean’s performance of Macbeth was a lesson in common humanity. Such humanity is what Keats had in mind when he expressed a desire to be of Kean’s company in December of 1817. The “fashionables” and the “blue-stocking literary world” already had their poets, just as upper-class theatergoers had long had Kemble and his school. What Kean was in the theater Keats hoped to be in the world of poetry: a common man of uncommon imagining.

Works Cited

  • John Keats, The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958) 1.192-93. Subsequently in the text, abbreviated as Letters.
  • Nicholas Roe, John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997) 237-39.
  • Marjorie Levinson, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988)
  • Donald H. Reiman, “Keats and the Third Generation,” in The Persistence of Poetry, eds. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp [Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998] 111).
  • Bate, “Keats’s Style: Evolution Toward Qualities of Permanent Value,” in The Major English Romantic Poets, eds. Clarence D. Thorpe, Carlos Baker, and Bennett Weaver (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1957
  • William Hazlitt, The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols. (New York: AMS, 1967
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