Analysis of John Keats's "When I Have Fears:" Death & The Freedom of Limitations
John Keats’s “When I Have Fears” has often been read as a poem about a poet and his fear of mortality. Such a fear is not hard to unearth in Keats’s collection of poetry, not to mention his famous letters to family and friends. However, this sonnet stands out from others of its kind and those by its author because it paints a more nuanced portrait of death.
Keats’s fear is not simply his fate, but his failure to achieve love and fame within his short span on earth. A different reading of this poem reveals that, though the root of this anxiety is obviously death, as the speaker gets perspective on the shore of the world, death is also the problematic cure. While the speaker’s fears spawn from mortality and the limitations of life, it is this limitation that actually grants him the freedom from ultimate despair.
John Keats (1795 - 1821) was an English lyric poet whose work became widely celebrated for its vivid imagery. His literary legacy is a remarkable achievement considering his abruptly short life of only 25 years.
To provide context, it is important to note that the poem was written by an author obsessed with death and whose slowly disappearing family was plagued with disease. In fact, his brother died one year after the poem was written, and Keats died just three years after that (Fay 7).
The work has also been described as being “conscious of itself as the poem of a poet” (Hecht 14). Though its discussion of artistic angst and poetry is undeniable, it would behoove the reader to go from a more poetry-centered reading to a death-centered reading. With death at the center, it is easier to really see the shades of gray Keats paints regarding the popular poetic subject. This concept that it is not merely just a poem of a poet, but a more relatable and general poem about life and death, would of course be better explained through an explication of the text:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
In the opening lines, the speaker has clearly identified one of his fears for the reader. It is not merely the cliché death that worries the poet, but the very specific and mildly unique fear that he may not achieve his full creative potential (“full ripened grain”) by the time death arrives (in the form of “high-piled books” he has written). Such anxiety is relatable to any artist and any human being who is dissatisfied with his or her current state, or those who fear the limitations of life despite the unlimited nature of their ideas (before his pen has even “gleaned” his “teeming brain”).
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
The speaker looks up at the sky’s mighty constellations, perhaps beautiful, and he fears that he will “cease to be” before even tracing their shadows. The artist’s job, of course, is to trace or represent in his or her respective medium—for that is the definition of art. We have thus established Keats’s fear of achieving artistic success and fame (as he will identify later). However, the use of the word romance can also be taken in the more cultural sense relating to romantic relationships—a vital component of Keats’s fears:
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
The “and” tells the reader that in addition to this fear of failure in the poetic department, the speaker is also concerned with having never experienced the majesty of solid love or getting another chance to see this potential lover (who is limited by, and at the mercy of, time as she is but a “creature of an hour”). This can be read that the fear exists during the present—not that he will “never look upon [her] more” or “never have relish in the fairy power” because he will be dead but because of the fact that he will never succeed in doing so in life (nor will he have unlimited time to do so). This establishes the second and final components that make up the speaker’s fears: failure in the realm of love. These two aspects make up the overall truth that can be better generalized by saying that, “The speaker simultaneously faces the opportunities life holds for him and the threat of his own untimely death” (Fay 7).
When these fears occur, however, then the speaker goes to the shore—a limitation, a boundary:
These last two lines sound even more nihilistic than existential, as the reader might envision Keats himself standing alone on the edge of the universe, trying to get perspective and reflect on these fears. Keats thinks that such woe seems hard to despair because in the end, these desires he feels so panicked to attain despite time’s “cruel hand,” as Shakespeare wrote in Sonnet 60, sink to nothingness, lost in the cleansing and eternal waves of the water to which he looks. In fact, Sonnet 60 opens with:
Likes as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore,
This image of the waves and the shore representing the limitations of Time (capitalized and personified as a man for Shakespeare) are significant to keep in mind when contrasting the ending and messages of both sonnets. Shakespeare’s 60th ends with:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Despite how many scholars have overlooked the differences, the sonnets present radically different views on poetry, art, and mortality. Keats makes no proud mention of his verse, of his poetry’s ability to withstand the grim reaper—but it is that very fact that makes his fears of failure so irrelevant to begin with. These differences are actually precisely the same, and even more fitting, when one compares Shakespeare’s 107th sonnet to Keats’s “When I Have Fears.” Sonnet 107 is one of Shakespeare’s familiar odes to the poet’s ability to cheat death through his song:
Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
William Flesch writes that the later poem “clearly….does recall this sonnet ” and there is much evidence to support such a claim (Flesch 18). The fourth word of each poem is fears (“Not mine own fears”), both poets use the alliterate phrase “wide world,” and both utilize nighttime imagery (“The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured”). The end of the poem, however, adds greater meaning to the later work:
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Both sonnets also discuss love and death (“My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes”) but it is their separation that truly defines Keats’s response. The idea that “tyrants’ crests” and “tombs of brass” are “spent” while “this poor rhyme” grants a lover “thy monument,” one must be reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, where “Not marble, not the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (1-2). Keats offers a humbler discussion of his poetry—so humbling it is depressing—and reflects a sort of Marvellian perspective on immortality and art: “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound / My echoing song” (5-6).
Even though the sonnet is commonly known as a poet’s poem about poetry, which has its clear merits, the speaker seems uninterested in art and its ability to last for eternity. In fact, the idea that fame sinks to nothingness challenges the very notion—for what is fame (which would be achieved for Keats through the success of his books of poetry) if not a human’s chance at immortality? Nothing seems immortal in the cyclical sea the speaker gazes upon, but it is the lack of immortality that tells Keats not to worry because all the things he wishes to accomplish before death will literally be rendered nothing by death.
Whether or not this satisfies the speaker is unknown. It is nevertheless a truthful, maybe depressing, but ultimately freeing response to the woe. William Flesch describes this best as “a kind of negative freedom…from ‘love and fame,’ or from ‘love of fame,’ as he calls it in a letter to Sarah Jeffrey” (Flesch 18). On the cue of Keats’s letters, a month before writing the poem, Keats wrote “To J.H. Reynolds” (Luke 664). Part of an included verse in the letter describes how Keats “saw / Too far into the sea” and “I saw too distinct into the core / Of an eternal fierce destruction, And so from Happiness I far was gone” (Gittings 413). This may unfortunately suggest, if one recalls the shore from “When I Have Fears” that such a sight of his own mortality (and that of his art and all of art’s rewards) is depressing overall. This is not meant to undermine the idea of death as a cure for the fears, as its (subjectively) depressing nature is precisely why it is a problematic cure. On an objective level, Keats’s conclusion is truthful, and it was Keats himself who famously wrote that, “Truth is beauty.”
While many poems and sonnets present death as an evil clock driving the artist and human insane, Keats acknowledges and responds to this phenomenon. “When I Have Fears” presents death as less of the clichéd limit and more of a freedom from anxiety. The fear is therefore not just about death, but about failing during the limited time alive. In the poem, death turns everything into nothing, making such high hopes for fame and love not worth such intense stress, and making the art apparently not even worth discussing in terms of (im)mortality. This somewhat nihilistic and existential perspective that unlimited values are rendered meaningless by a limited life actually calm the speaker’s angst and despair. This can be applied not only to the life of an artist or a poet but of every mortal, as death is both the cause and solution of our problems, the fear and the remedy.
Fay, Robert. "Poets in Search of an Audience." The English Journal 61.8 (1972): 1181-1188. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.
Flesch, William. "The Ambivalence of Generosity: Keats Reading Shakespeare." ELH 62.1 (1995): 149-169. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.
Gittings, Robert. Letters of John Keats (Oxford Letters & Memoirs). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1970. Print.
Hecht, Jamey. "Scarcity and Poetic Election in Two Sonnets of John Keats." ELH 61.1 (1994): 103-120. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.
Luke, David. "Keats's Notes from Underground "To J.H. Reynolds"." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 19.4 (1979): 661-672. JSTOR. Web. 1 Mar. 2010.