John Keats’ Poem, When I Have Fears That I May Cease To

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John Keats’ poem, When I have fears that I may cease to be, is a well-known work that embodies many Romantic principles. The poem, explored in the context of Keats’ suffering from consumption, laments human impermanence while simultaneously exploring philosophical notions. Keats implements the use of the Shakespearean sonnet with each quatrain, beginning with the ambiguous, but time-bound word ‘when,’ manifesting these ideas in unique ways. When I have fears that I may cease to be uses the structure of the sonnet to delineate between the realms of reality and fantasy, while contributing to the overarching concept of eternity and ultimately reaches the conclusion that even lofty ideas that appear eternal ultimately erode.
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It is this sentiment, in fact, that motivates him to write this very sonnet; ironically, the sonnet in turn laments his inability to write more.
However, the impending death that creates the incapacity to write down thoughts does not detract from the complexity of the thoughts. On the contrary, Keats’ comparison of his imagination to harvestable grain shows confident self-recognition of his own ability, highlighting the awareness of “the poet’s own ripeness in his art” (Grosholz 604). This art “teems” in his brain and is “rich,” and these qualities compel him to pour out his feelings into this one sonnet, despite his belief that this will be the last sonnet he writes. However, his fervent but vain desire to express the entirety of his poetic notions “imparts to [him] the hunger, or poverty, necessary for production, but…also dwarfs whatever [he] has already written” (Hecht 116). Accordingly, by longing to write his unspoken wisdom, Keats rejects any greatness associated with his previous works. This untapped potential consequently creates a paradox for Keats as he is both the field of grain and its harvester (Saksono 97). Thus, he alone is capable of cultivating and sharing his work despite his waning health. The prospect of this work is still tantalizing to him, though, as Hecht states that “‘The high piled books, in charactry’ promise that if they could only be written, meaning would outlive the
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