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Monday, May 16, 2011

Number 157: Keats "When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be"

"When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be"

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,

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,

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.

-- John Keats

Hap Notes: This poem has been going through my head all weekend so I'm gently sitting it down here so I won't have to carry it around (I hope.) Don't get me wrong, I like the poem, it's just a tad more poignant than I like to be feeling, all in all.

Keats, of course, was a sickly fella and while he did not out-live his poetry compatriots and allies (like Byron and Shelley) they did not out-live him by much. So we always have to keep in mind that these second generation Romantic poets were very young (and, like all humans, sometimes foolish) with all that implies about their intensity.

It's worth noting that their pal Leigh Hunt lived to be more than 70 years old and his name rarely first springs to mind when thinking of the Romantic poets. Byron, Shelley and Keats get the posthumous fame, Hunt got to live longer and eat more strawberries and see more sunsets and feel more rain and snow and see his children grow up. We don't always get a choice in this but, it's interesting to speculate which we would choose. (As for me, I side with Hunt- he wrote some fine (albeit a tad narrow) poems. He had troubles but he lived through them. He was a bit petty (er.. human) and he lacked the "high creative voice" but, there you have it. You cannot have everything, and, as I always say, even if you did have everything where would you put it? Here's an idea-- I'll give you everything in the world if you agree to keep it exactly where it is already. Okay? Now you have everything. Go work on something else.

I, digress.

But not really. Keats' sonnet is actually talking about this life and what he longs for from it. In the first quatrain he talks of all the writing he wants to do. Keats was a man on mission as far as writing poetry was concerned and he wrote a remarkable amount of sterling work in a very short time-- he burned with the stuff. (Breaking off again to say that book-o-phile that I was, when I first read the poem in junior high I thought he meant he was worried about READING all the books he wanted to, not writing them. I can still relate to this.)

In the second quatrain of this Elizabethan sonnet (for a brief second, I always flash on Shakespeare when I read this poem- makes sense, eh?) Keats says an early death would see him lose the experience of "High Romance." Which is exactly what he's experiencing as he writes this poem (more on that later.) The high romance of the mysteries of life, the beauties, the ecstasies, the tragedies-- all this would be lost to the poet were he to die, he laments (in high romantic fashion.)

He also says he'll miss the glories of romantic love. The "unreflected" implies to me that the fair creature he is in love with may not return his love with his intensity (who could?), and that feeling, of loving someone elusive, is a powerful and magical and painful feeling.

In the final two verses we get to the heart of the matter – Keats yearns. He longs. He pines. For what, he is not exactly sure although he's certainly given it a pretty good description in the poem. But he (and , I think, most thinking humans) feels intensely that there is more – something beyond all this love and fame. This loneliness of the soul is a big part of Keats' work – the thrill of life and love and the sheer pleasure of looking at the universe, the stars, fills him with a sense of loss (that he may cease to be.)

But I think Keats is saying something else very important here; that all the things we think we want are not nearly as grand as the "high romance," the life of the soul, the spirit. And this, is a very lonely feeling. Beautiful. Silent. Full of Awe. But lonely. (If I may, "silent, upon a peak in Darien"?) The terrifyingly gorgeous nothing, which I think Keats thinks (or maybe I think) is just the jumping off point for truly experiencing life.

Keats always knows there's an ineffable something else, something deep and important. Nobody I can think of writes poetry better about this feeling. So his search for the "high romance" (what Frost calls a 'lover's quarrel' with the world) IS the high romance he craves, in many ways.

If you don't get the tiniest stab of heartache that Keats only lived to be 25 years old, I think you should check your pulse, luv.

Here's the last place we've talked about Keats before:

(you do know that you can search the whole blog from the search bar at the top, yes? There's more Keats, if you want it.)

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