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Analysis of ‘When I fear that I may cease to be’, by John Keats

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When I fear that I may cease to be

‘When I fear that I may cease to be’ was first published in 1848 in Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats by Richard Monckton Milnes. Milnes was the only who did justice to the works of Keats. This poem is about limitations of life and fear of immortality.

About the Poet

John Keats was born on October 31 1795 in London. He was the oldest of the four children. Keats lost his parents at a very young age. He lost his mother and siblings to tuberculosis and he also succumbed to this disease on February 23, 1821. In 1816 Keats became a licensed apothecary; however in the same year he found his true calling which was writing and slowly began devoting more time on writing poetry. Leigh Hunt played a major influence in turning Keats into poetry. Keats was in love with the nature around him and he expressed it explicitly in his poems. John Keats lived only for 25 years but the poems written during that short period continues to influence the literary circles till this day.

Summary

The poem starts with a thought of death. The poet wonders if he will die before he pens down all the ideas ‘teeming’ in his brain. Will he die before he writes many books? His books that have gathered many ripened thoughts like the ‘ripened grain’. Some of those thoughts pour out in the next few lines. On a starry night he envisages ‘high romance’. High romance must be a reference to a lofty romance. Then he wonders what if he does not live to trace even the ‘shadow’ of such love which he admits is ‘magic hand of chance’.  If with the fleeting time he cannot reach his exalted love, ‘never relish her faery power’, of love that is not reflected, then he would stand alone in the ‘wide world and think’. He would think so hard that his love and fame sinks into ‘nothingness’.

Analysis

‘When I fear that I may cease to be’ is a sonnet written in iambic pentameter. This meter refers to five sets of iambs. Iamb is a set of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG and true to the nature of a sonnet he changes the thought process in the last two lines. Metaphors and similes are used in this poem. Both are poetic devices that add colour to any writing. ‘Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;’ is an example of simile. The second and the third line have the repetition of the word, ‘before’. Such repetition of words adds to the lyrical index of a poem and it is called anaphora.  ‘Rich garners and ripened grain’ is an example for alliteration. Alliteration is a device where there are many words in a line starting with the same letter. He has personified shadow and sees it with a magic hand. ‘When I fear that I may cease to be’ is one of the rare pomes that achieved immense popularity as soon as it was published and this wide-spread acceptance might be due the description of the transient life of nature.