When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be
John Keats (1795-1821)
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred 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.
I don’t know whether I can explain why I love John Keats, another Romantic poet, like Wordsworth in the Week 1 post, as much as I do. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a Keats expert, but I love his language: sensual and evocative and with tons of allusions to Greek myth, sometimes to the point of being overwrought. I probably have a dozen favorites. This poem, a sonnet, is actually not at the top of the list, but it seems like the most powerful introduction to Keats at a time when we all think a lot about the fact that we could die–and that we could run out of time to make art, to get our ideas out into the world, and to be with the one(s) we love.
Those first lines, “When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain” always draws me in–because like everyone, I DO have those fears–who doesn’t fear death, and running out of time for everything we want to do in life?–but also because I know about Keats. All you need to do is look at his life dates. He was 25 when he died of tuberculosis, and because he was trained as a physician and there were no antibiotics then, he knew well ahead of time that he was doomed. He’d been writing and publishing poetry since he was 17, and his “teeming brain” did hold a lot of ideas he never got to express. I have seen his grave, in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and that was intense. His chosen epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” I am very glad that Keats’s name and his writing didn’t just dissolve and disappear, just written in the water, but that his fame has lasted and he is still read. But of course what gets me is that I share his fear of just being forgotten, not having made a difference (because we all will be, eventually, since love and fame really DO sink to nothingness).
I wrote in the Week 2 post about the way that a formally tight poem (like a villanelle) can be a really good way to express difficult emotions in extremely condensed and therefore very intense form. This poem is a sonnet, so it also has a lot of formal rules (14 lines, a specific rhyme scheme, here abab cdcdc dede ff–the classic “Shakespearean sonnet,” and a fixed meter, the famous iambic pentameter of “To be | or not | to be, |that is | the quest | ion”). And again, I think it works to hold in overwhelming fears and, for a moment, makes them more manageable, although the last two lines (in the Shakespearean sonnet, the “punchline,” or the climax of the poem) just open up the abyss, as I imagine the speaker literally standing at the brink (“on the shore / of the wide world I stand alone”) and everything disappears as he is facing his fears of death and oblivion all alone. Wow.
I keep sneaking extra poems in and I think I need to do this again for Keats, but mostly just in terms of titles. (It’s easy to google more poems by title. My go-to for the texts is poetryfoundation.org.) He wrote my favorite poem about what it’s like to discover a new book and feel like you’ve discovered a new world, in his case actually an old translation of Homer’s Odyssey (“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”). He also wrote a fantastic poem that contemplates an ancient Greek vase that becomes a philosophical riff on beauty frozen in time (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”) and one on hearing a nightingale sing, where the nightingale becomes a stand-in for a poet’s voice (“Ode to a Nightingale”). He has some really sexy, super-sensual poems, including the seductive fairy tale “The Eve of St. Agnes.” But because I am really into poems that wrestle with feelings of overwhelming sadness, my very favorite is “Ode on Melancholy.” “Depression” is what we would call it; most people in the Romantic era called it “dejection,” but the old-fashioned term is “melancholy.”
So here is Keats on “melancholy.” It’s a hard poem and sometimes it turns readers off because there are many allusions and a complicated style and syntax. But here is a horrible reductive summary of each stanza that may get you curious how Keats manages to say something meaningful and poetic about it.
1. Don’t get drunk / doped up to keep depression muted or escape from it.
2. When the depression hits, embrace it; see things around you through it
and you will appreciate them more.
3. Depression, joy, and beauty go together: depression lives inside joy
and makes it all the more powerful.
I know that this is NOT GOOD PSYCHOLOGICAL ADVICE AT ALL but I still get it. It is not a “depressing” poem to me. It is about about facing rather than avoiding my sadness and my fears of death and loss, and to see that they can make what is beautiful all the more beautiful, and make me experience the world more intensely–the grape bursting against the palate, the morning rose, the green grass through a gray downpour. You get the picture. Keats conjures it up powerfully for me.
Ode on Melancholy
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.