When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be, Summary of the Poem

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The central metaphor in the first quatrain is the comparison between writing poetry and harvesting grain. The speaker compares the pen with an implement of harvest(“glean’d my teeming brain”) and books with the buildings(“garners”) where grain is stored. The metaphor expresses the first of the speaker’s three main concerns: that death will cut short his poetic career. Just as a person’s natural life spans youth, adulthood, and old age, so the growing of grain follows the natural progression of the seasons. For the poet to die young, however, precludes his chance of “harvesting” the fruits of his mind, which become “ripen’d” only as the poet ages. These fruits, which are poetic works, grant the poet fame, represented by the “high-piled books” in line 3. The fear of obscurity was one Keats carried to his death only three years after composing “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be”. Though he had no way of knowing his life would indeed be cut short before he achieved the kind of recognition he sought, he echoes this concern in the final line of the sonnet.

Lines 5-8

Some readers believe that the second quatrain continues to discuss the fear that death will cut short the speaker’s poetic career. These readers infer that the “high romance” symbolized by the night clouds is a literary concept, a level of artistic expression the speaker will never “live to trace,” or to realize. But another reading is possible. The night sky as a symbol for the ultimate questions that haunt man dates back to ancient times. The Hebrew Psalmist, for instance, reflects on die stars in Psalm 8(in the King James Bible) and asks himself, “What is man?” While Keats’s use of the word romance” might suggest a literary meaning, die reader must also acknowledge more philosophical implications. The clouds move across die moon and stars, making “shadows” that recall Plato’s analogy of me cave wall. These shadows, cryptic and insubstantial as they are, reveal die greater mystery of the heavens. By living, the poet hopes he can divine the explanation for — die “Truth” of — the universe, and by extension me riddle of his own existence. Whether or not he lives to do so, however, remains at the discretion of “the magic hand of chance,” or fate. If he dies too soon, he knows, he will not be able to solve the mystery of the heavens, to “trace their shadows.” This fear that he will die in ignorance of the soul’s ultimate destiny is one mat goes far beyond the question of poetic fame in the first quatrain. It is also a concept mat remains unsettled by the final two lines of the poem — not dissolving, as do “love” and “fame,” to “nothingness.”

Lines 9-12

The third quatrain speaks of another kind of “high romance,” that of “unreflecting love.” In these lines, the speaker first addresses his beloved in typically romantic terms(“fair creature”), yet the quatrain’s main concern is not the beloved at all. Instead, it is the self. The speaker’s meditation on his beloved leads instantly to his twin fears of time and death. Because of life’s fleetingness, his love is only “of an hour.” Further, the consciousness of time — and of love’s transience — precludes what the speaker suggests is the best kind of love: love devoid of analytical scrutiny and therefore free of the fear of loss and death. This kind of love has a “faery power” (in mythology, fairies are immortal) precisely because it is “unreflecting.” Because the speaker’s nature is to be self-conscious, die opposite of “unreflecting,” he fears he will never experience this kind of love.

Lines 13-14

In the end, the speaker’s recognition that he lacks the qualities of “unreflecting love” leads him to the state of alienation described in the final couplet. Because he is too self-conscious to love, he is forced to “stand alone.” Isolated, he continues to “think.” But thinking is, in this poem, equal to death. As he reflects on time’s inevitable course, two things the speaker holds most valuable in life —...
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