“When I have fears that I may cease to be” is an Elizabethan sonnet written by John Keats. The poem, written in the first person, charts the desires and despairs of the speaker. The speaker, realising his imminent death, regrets his inability to achieve fame and his incapability of living life to the fullest. The poem expresses Keats’s melancholic nature, his fears and is reflective of the turmoil in his life at that time.
The first quatrain is an expression of the speaker’s regretfulness. Although he has a “teeming brain” abound with vivid imagery and vibrant ideas, he fears he will “cease to be” or die before he can recount them. The speaker believes his imagination could fill “high-piled books, in character” or a large number of books. Keats’s diction translates the imagery of harvest; this is achieved through the usage of words associated with farming, “garners”, “grains”, “gleaned”. The harvest imagery acts as a metaphor, the speaker’s imagination is the field of grain and the speaker is the harvester. Essentially, the speaker fears he will be the unsuccessful famer who failed to “glean” his land.
In the second quatrain, lines (5-8), the theme of regretfulness is continued. Through usage of imagery and personification, Keats translates a lifelike picture of the speaker awed by the night’s “starred face”. The speaker draws inspiration from nature to craft his poetry; it is his “magic hand” that “traces” the “shadows” of the clouds. Through his poetic ability, the speaker believes he emphasizes the beauty of nature and gives it meaning.
In the third quatrain, the speaker addresses love (described as “fair creature of the hour”). In order to emphasize the brevity of beauty, the fair creature is referred to as “creature the hour” hinting to the idea that the creature achieves its beauty for a brief period of one hour. The speaker fears he will not “relish in the faery power of unreflecting love”, he will never experience true love. Although his desire for success is strong, his desire for love is more intense and immediate. Ultimately, it is him “ceasing to be” which will prevent him from gazing “upon thee more” or experiencing true love.
In the final lines of the poem, the speaker stands ” on the shore of the wide world…alone”, it is while standing on the threshold of the world that he is struck by an epiphany: “to love and fame nothingness do sink”. The shore, which the speaker stands on, acts as a metaphor: the tiny grains of sand represent the speaker and the beach the entire world. The comparison of the grain of sand to the beach allows the speaker to realize his insignificance in the whole wide world. The speaker concludes that his quest for fame and fortune are irrelevant in the grand scheme of the life.