“When I Have Fears” is one of John Keats’ lesser known works, but it is impactful and relatable all the same. The poem was written by Keats in January of 1818; however, it wasn’t properly published until 1848, 27 years after he passed away. “When I Have Fears” was written in a traditional Elizabethan structure. It is written in iambic pentameter, and consists of three quatrains and a couplet.

The three quatrains have their own contained “ABAB CDCD EFEF” rhyme scheme, and the couplet at the end rhymes on its own. Keats wrote “When I Have Fears” as an exploration of feelings surrounding the finite amount of art created before one inevitably dies.

“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 speaker – who could be presumed to be Keats himself – voices his fears of passing away before being able to express his abundance of thoughts through writing poetry. In the third and fourth lines, he draws a metaphorical parallel between him filling stacks of books with his thoughts and a farmer filling stock-houses with harvested grain.

It’s worth noting the use of the phrase “cease to be” in the first line. Keats could’ve used “die” or “pass away” to get his point across. However, using “cease to be” suggests that the speaker is fearful of missing out on the remainder of his life, instead of the physical sensation of dying, or the idea of death itself.

Additionally, the repetition of “before” at the beginning of the second and third lines emphasizes his worries surrounding everything he wouldn’t accomplish before he dies.

“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;”

In this quatrain, Keats describes the speaker staring up into a beautiful sky of stars, and finding some semblance of romance within the landscape. The inclusion of nature-based imagery is a very common trait within English Romantic poetry written in the 1800s; Keats was no stranger to appreciating all types of beautiful scenery in nature.

Describing the night sky as a “starr’d face” is a subtle form of personification; readers typically picture human faces when reading, so the description is injected with the sort of simple, realistic beauty that Keats includes in several of his poems.

However, particularly in the seventh and eighth lines, the looming tone of anxiety seeps back in. The speaker worries that he will die before he gets to take the beautiful things he sees in the sky and incorporate them into his art. This very easily reflects Keats’ own worries of dying before getting to experience the beauty that he embeds into his poetry.

In the final line of the quatrain, Keats personifies the concept of chance by referring to it as a hand. The personification is furthered by describing the hand as “magic”; it’s given a trait that’s seen as being impractical and impossible for anyone to have, let alone a lonesome hand.

“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”

The anxiety from the end of the second quatrain continues into this stanza. In the first and fourth lines, exclamation points are used. It is the first and only time that exclamation points are used in the poem; compared to using something like a period, it’s a sharp, urgent form of punctuation that emphasizes the speaker’s anxiety.

The speaker continues to worry about not being able to experience things before he dies; in this specific stanza, he worries about never being able to look at his partner and experience the euphoria of true love ever again.

The speaker describes his partner as a “fair creature of an hour”. While describing someone as fair can paint a gorgeous picture, adding “of an hour” at the end gives the compliment a fleeting feeling. The speaker’s partner is beautiful, but because of death, beauty can only last for a limited time.

Additionally, the speaker refers to “the faery power / Of unreflecting love!”. It’s a very vivid description of love and all of the feelings that come with it. In the 1800s, faeries were seen in poetry as very ethereal, beautiful creatures with an air of romantic mystery around them.

“Unreflecting” is another interesting way to describe love. On one hand, it could mean unreturned love, or loving someone without expecting anything in return. It could also be interpreted as being unreflecting of the speaker’s thoughts. Much like his art, the love between the speaker and his partner is naturally occurring and not forced. 

It’s important to note that the last line of the third quatrain is enjambed with the first line of the couplet. Initially, it gives the line a choppy sound, and it’s an abrupt ending; however, it is given an immediate resolution with the couplet that follows.

“Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

As previously mentioned, the first line of the couplet is enjambed with the last line of the third quatrain. The speaker stands alone “on the shore / Of the wide world”; not only is it an excellent example of Keats utilizing imagery, but it creates a vivid feeling of loneliness and isolation within the readers’ minds. In the second line, Love and Fame are both capitalized as a form of personification. Many people invest so much time and thought into pursuing both love and fame that they view the concepts as sentient beings, looming just out of reach for their entire lives.

As he stands alone, the speaker thinks about how love and fame are impossible things for him to have in life; in a vague sense, he resigns himself to having his chance at both things sinking into “nothingness”. That feeling of impossibility is only highlighted in the face of unavoidable death; it was likely a feeling Keats wrestled with until he died from tuberculosis when he was only 25 years old.