’s “When I Have Fears” Essay, Research Paper
In his English sonnet ?When I Have Fears? (pg. 17, Vendler), John Keats attempts to put into words the human emotions felt when dealing with death. I believe that Keats wrote this poem to describe the natural order of emotions he went through while thinking of his own mortality. The tone of the sonnet takes a ?roller coaster? course throughout the poem from one quatrain to the next. With careful examination one can see that Keats used the first quatrain to describe a state of utter confusion, the second to express a calm and bittersweet feeling, the third to describe a feeling of immense fear, and the final couplet to express a feeling of acceptance.
The first quatrain deals with the first of four emotions that Keats expresses throughout the sonnet. The first line, ?When I have fears that I may cease to be? (pg. 17, Vendler) immediately tells the reader that this is a poem about John Keats? fear of death. The fact that he says, ?When I have fears?? leads me to believe that these fears are not an everyday experience, but a common occurrence that bothers him from time to time. It is also in this quatrain that Keats uses agricultural metaphors to describe his fears of death. In the second line, ?Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,? (pg. 17, Vendler) we see the first of these metaphors with the use of the word ?gleaned.? If something is gleaned it implies that it is being raked, scraped, or sorted with some kind of farming or gardening tool. The other important word in this second line is ?teeming?, which is synonymous to swarming, packed, or crowded. When Keats describes his ?teeming brain,? one can imagine millions of thoughts and fears running rampant throughout his mind, leaving him in a state of utter confusion. This entire second line is intended to tell us that by writing this sonnet, Keats is ?raking? or sorting all of the fears that have cluttered his mind.
The third line of the sonnet also supports the notion that Keats was overloaded with dread and perplexity. ?Before high-pil?d books, in charact?ry,? (pg. 17, Vendler) is another metaphor of a cluttered desk that directly relates to the unbalance of emotions and thoughts that arise when he thinks of death. In the fourth line, ?Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain;? (pg. 17, Vendler) Keats once again returns the agricultural metaphor. Garners are the large storage facilities on farms that hold large quantities of grain before it is shipped off and sold. In this particular case I believe Keats used grain as a metaphor for human life. The grain had been tended to and nourished for some time, where it was then picked and killed by the farmers, and placed into a garner. It is possible that Keats intended the garner to be a metaphor for a cemetery or something that lies beyond the life of the individual. Keats? genius can be seen through his agricultural metaphors, as both individual life and farming follow a vicious cycle that cannot go unbroken. Humans, much like crops, come from the earth and in time we return to the earth. It is an inescapable aspect of all living beings.
With the beginning of the second quatrain, the reader experiences the first change of tone. The fifth line reads, ?When I behold, upon the night?s starred face,? (pg. 17, Vendler) which is an enormous transition from a cluttered and overflowing desk. It almost seems to say that he has ?gleaned? his mind with his pen, so to speak, and has calmed himself down a bit. He therefore uses the tranquil picture of a starry sky with large clouds to demonstrate his sudden change in mood. As the quatrain continues, he begins to express the notion that there may be many things that he won?t be able to do in his lifetime as shown in the seventh and eighth lines: ?And think that I may never live to trace?Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;? (pg. 17, Vendler). In these particular lines the reader doesn?t obtain the same sense of fear that was so greatly expressed in the first quatrain. If one were to draw out an ?emotional curve? of this poem, it would start with a dramatic increase throughout the first quatrain and then quickly drop down with the second quatrain, creating the ?roller coaster? effect mentioned earlier.
As that roller coaster continues on, it once again quickly rises with the third quatrain. The calm and serene Keats of the second quatrain quickly rediscovers his fears, and they almost seem to explode in this climactic third quatrain. It is as if all the fears that he was beginning to come to terms with catch up with Keats tenfold and send him into a state of sheer horror. As he states in lines ten and eleven, ?That I shall never look upon thee more, Never have relish in the faery power?Of unreflecting love!? (pg. 17, Vendler) This is similar to his emotions in the second quatrain concerning things he will not be able to do within his lifetime. The only difference is he seems far more regretful and fearful as opposed to the accepting nature Keats displayed in the second quatrain. Keats is in his own way saying, ?There is so much I want to do, and my life is too short for me to do all of these things!?
This roller coaster ride seems to quickly come to an end as the last couplet of the sonnet demonstrates Keats? fourth and final change in tone. The last two lines of the poem read, ?then on the shore Of the wide world I stand alone, and think Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.?(pg. 17, Vendler) This once again returns to the accepting nature that was seen in the second quatrain, only this time it appears that there will be no returning to his fearful state. Keats seems to be at peace with himself here, as he realizes that love and fame, virtues that many men hold dear to their hearts, mean nothing in the end as he stands alone to face his death.
The only question left to ask, is how does one explain Keats sudden changes in mood? I believe the answer is that there is no answer. Keats does a wonderful job expressing how the human mind works throughout his poem, ?When I Have Fears.? Sometimes when dwelling on one particular fear or idea, the mind can be sent on a roller coaster ride that climbs and falls from one emotion to the next. This, I believe, is the best and only way to describe the different emotions throughout the poem.
Vendler, Helen Poems ? Poets ? Poetry Keats, John ?When I Have Fears?