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WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,         5

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,               10

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 

This is a Shakespearian sonnet of three quatrains and a couplet. It follows the typical development, of three major propositions and a conclusion based upon the whole. The overall theme is a meditation on death: First, he thinks of the work and fame which he will not obtain by his early death. Then he considers the greater loss, which is the loss of his love (Fanny Brawne). He in fact died at age 25 in 1821.

 

He concludes with the realization that neither art nor love will be sufficient to stop the loss of all. In the end, there will be only “nothingness.”

 

First Stanza:

 

WHEN I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,

Before high piled books, in charact’ry,

Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;

 

The first line introduces the theme: When I contemplate my death and what will be lost. Being an ambitious young man with prodigious talent, his first thought comes to his poetry. He uses the imagery of farming and harvest: His pen “gleans” from his brain. Books of his work are like barns filled with grain. There is a harvest of his imagination to be had.

 

There is an interesting meta-view of the whole: he is busy “gleaning” by writing this poem on gleaning. And so his fear of loss creates the gain.

 

Second Stanza:

 

When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,         5

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,

And think that I may never live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;

 

In this stanza he makes use of the Romantic epistemology: the world is both objective and subjective: the meaning of that world is produced in my imagination working on the raw materials of the creation. As Shelley has in Mont Blanc:

 

My own, my human mind, which passively 

Now renders and receives fast influencings, 

Holding an unremitting interchange 

With the clear universe of things around; 

One legion of wild thoughts, whose wandering wings 

Now float above thy darkness, and now rest 

Where that or thou art no unbidden guest, 

In the still cave of the witch Poesy, 

Seeking among the shadows that pass by 

Ghosts of all things that are, some shade of thee, 

Some phantom, some faint image; till the breast 

From which they fled recalls them, thou art there

 

The sky and clouds are filled with potential tales. But these things will never be revealed if he, the poet, does not live to

 

live to trace

Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance

 

 

Third Stanza:

 

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!

That I shall never look upon thee more,               10

Never have relish in the faery power

Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore

 

He then looks upon his love. She also transient: “fair creature of an hour!” And he will never more have the joy of looking upon her.

 

But there is something different here. In his work of creating, he is making something from world about him. And, if he does not make it, it will not come to be. But this which comes from her is not some creation of his imagination. She radiates “the faery power/Of unreflecting love!”

 

A “faery power” would be something profound, preternatural. It is the sort of power that he seeks to lay hold of in his imaginative work, “cloudy symbols of a high romance.” His work only reaches toward those things. But, in this woman before him who loves, that which would seek to achieve is given to him.

 

This love given to him is more than the goal of all that he would desire.

 

Couplet

 

The couplet is interesting, because Keats does not make a clean break from the third stanza. It is as if the contemplation of the one he loves has not merely superseded his art, it has derailed his poem.

 

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think   

Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

 

And then he ends with the conclusion of vanity. Neither his art nor even her love are sufficient to stand before death. The only fitting reference here is Ecclesiastes. Keats would have known the Bible merely by normal exposure in his age (and from references in his work). Thus, a concept from Ecclesiastes being behind his work would not be a stretch:

 

Ecclesiastes 1:1–8 (AV)

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.