Critical Analysis of “When I Have Fears that I may Cease to be”
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I will write a critical analysis of this poem, then come to an informed conclusion on what this poem has shown me, as regards keats’ writing craft, and his preoccupation with death.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilï¿½d books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;
At the end of the first line we see a case of enjambment, between the words ‘be’ and ‘before’. In my opinion this emphasizes the sense of shock I think Keats felt, when the thought hit him of dieing ‘Before [his] pen has gleaned [his] teeming brain’.
He tells us that his brain is ‘teeming’. This is far from the average declaration made my literarians. He claims to be ‘gleaning’ this activity in his brain. A simile is used to liken this to a barn that holds full-ripened grain. He is telling us that he is essentially, in a poet’s dream at the moment – he has more good ideas than he knows what to do with.
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;
Keats not only describes fears of not getting all his ideas down in time, he also worries that he will not do his ideas justice when he does come to put pen to paper. In these four lines, he tells us that he believes his interpretation of what he sees will not be a perfect, precise, exact replica. He doesn’t pretend he can, he admits that his interpretations are limited in their accuracy – his life will not last long enough even to correctly convey the shadows, or mere outlines of what he sees.
Also, he attributes a portion of what he does get correct to chance. Almost that chance has taken his hand and enabled [perhaps allowed] him to duplicate these amazing sights of the night sky.
He uses personification in line five to emphasize the striking appearance of this wonderful sky, by saying it has a face. I found this metaphor particularly interesting. It is not an everyday occurrence that someone would consider a night sky as having a face, yet, in my opinion Keats [feels that he] sees something that maybe ‘normal’ people cannot.
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
Here Keats is believed to be talking about a beautiful woman he met once in Vauxhall Gardens. Seeing her, to Keats, is one of life’s great moments. She has been given supernatural qualities, ‘Faery power’ – i.e., she is set apart from other women. I think Keats’ deliberately describes her as little as possible. All through the poem he has been telling us, he sees such utter beauty in the world, yet is incapable of describing it to its fullest. It appears to be the case with this minute description of a lady he probably felt an attraction to. Also, faeries are mysterious, mischievous creatures in themselves – he perhaps finds this appealing of her and wants to maintain this, not delving too much into detail about her.
Also in this quartet, he realises life’s transient nature, that it is continually moving onwards, and coupled with this realisation is the inner call for immediacy to his work.
Of unreflecting love! – then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
He worries he will die before he has written all that he has stored in his brain, before he has experienced romance, emphasis given by the exclamation mark put before the end of the clause.
He is like an artist who takes a step back from a painting – he takes account of the everyday, trivial goings-on and finds it totally insignificant to what he sees before him, this vision that he beholds.
Keats finishes by addressing these two preoccupations shown throughout the poem: love, and success. He stands looking out from the shore, to the sea. The sea is not a constant, its form changes all the time, it fluxuates in all different directions. It is a symbol of uncertainty, and he perhaps sees these preoccupations testing themselves along this sea, perhaps seen as the world, only to sink to nothing.
John Keats had preoccupations regarding both love and fame, or more accurately, success as a poet. He was, at one time, an apothecary’s trainee, so he will have encountered death at many times, and is known to have nursed his brother who died.
As for love, his feelings for Fanny Braun are well documented; he even went as far as to propose to her daughter when she refused him. In my opinion it would be fair to say that he felt loneliness, one that could only be remedied by the love of a partner.
Woodhouse noted, ‘He [Keats] has repeatedly said…that he never sits down to write, unless he is full of ideas – and then thoughts come about him in troops…one of his maxims is that if P[oetry] does not come naturally, it had better not come at all.’
It can be taken from this, combined with Keats’ own comment that his brain is teeming with ideas, that perhaps his preoccupations have given him too much to write about, that it has shaken his confidence in his own abilities.
My final conclusion is that Keats’ preoccupations have had an extremely adverse affect on his writing craft – his self-admitted incapability to accurately convey these scenes, or images that he beholds, has cause the worst frustration, and in turn, a ‘stand-offish’ approach to his poetry, like he is cautious of writing in case he has created an imperfect poem that would be an injustice to the particular source of his inspiration.