John Keats’ poem “When I have Fears that I may cease to be” is about the poet’s contemplation of his own mortality. When Keats woke one day with blood on his pillow, the doctor in him knew that stain to be the mark of his own undoing by consumption. This poem is one way of dealing with that knowledge by asserting that the things that seem the most important at the moment—poetic fame and love—are really nothing compared to the great wide world.
The poet has finally come to accept his place in the grand scheme of things, so the tone shifts from questioning hesitancy to peaceful acquiescence.
Lines 1-2 discuss how the poet’s brain is filled with possibility—ideas not yet written down by his pen in mounds of important books—and his fear that he may die before he is able to reach his poetic potential. This idea is compounded by the use of both imagery and alliteration in the first quatrain of the poem.
The description of the “full-ripen’d grain” in line 4 compares his poetic imagination to a grainery; that is, a place chock full of ripe food that will nourish the body the way his poetry will fulfill the mind.
His use of repeated sounds in “glean’d,” “grave’d,” “garner,” “garner,” and “grain” show just how fertile his imagination can be and raise the question of how tragic it may be if he dies before he has reached his peak. Lines 5-8 continue this contemplation of his poetry by considering the raw materials of his work—“night’s starr’d face” and “high romance” in the “huge cloudy symbols”—in other words, Keats is seeing everything that he would render into meaningful poetry given the time, but without that chance, he can only mourn the loss of the possible poem that exists in his mind.
He also gives a glimpse as to his view of composing poetry when he claims that “the magic hand of chance” could aid him in rendering mystical nature into a poem. Keats is using the mystery of nature as a symbol for the mystery of his future poetry, poems that will be lost if he ceases to be before committing them to paper. Lines 9-12 move beyond his poetic potential to consider the possibility of love lost in the event of his untimely death.
These lines are halting, a nod to the “faery power of unreflecting love”; it is almost as though Keats worries more over the loss of his future poetry moreso than any chance at love. Love itself is a sham here, an attempt at happiness that, when compared to the power of harnessing nature, loses any real chance at success. This section is only three and a half lines long, not even a full quatrain, a rhythm that gives the reader a sense of rushing; this is the same quality felt by Keats, and it reinforces the essence of the poem—time is running out.
The repetition of the word “when” also conveys the sense of time passing; with each moment, death approaches. Yet for all of these considerations, Keats realizes in the last two and half lines that the things he seeks the most, Fame and Love, are really nothing when compared to the grand scheme of things. The image of the shore is crucial here; when compared to the ocean, Keats’ personal struggles are meaningless, but beyond that, the shoreline represents a boundary line.
Just as Keats fears crossing the lines between life and death, he can come to terms with mortality when he finds himself in another in-between zone. Overall, “When I have Fears that I may cease to be” is a poem about accepting the limitations placed on one by life and time. Though material gains like fame or spiritual experiences like love may seem like all-encompassing purposes for a life, Keats shows that, upon reflection, these things pale in comparison to the larger issues in the world. Through the clever use of specific words and rhyme schemes, Keats conveys his message using poetic techniques.