“When I Have Fears” by the English Romantic poet John Keats is a sonnet that centers on the theme of fear: fear of his own mortality and the brevity of life, and the effects it has on his poetry and love. Keats’ use of the formal aspects of poetry to convey his ideas is particularly interesting, especially when complimented by other literary techniques. In particular, the stanza structure of “When I Have Fears” contributes greatly to the poem’s content. The stanza structure serves the primary purpose of organizing the poem, so that individual themes are more pronounced, hence the poem holistically has greater meaning. The stanza structure is also notable for mirroring Keats’ ideas. The stanza structure ultimately makes Keats’ thoughts clearer and stronger.
While the focus of the thesis is on stanza structures and their inter-relationships, it is necessary to examine the structure of the poem as a whole. “When I Have Fears” is a classic Elizabethan sonnet, consisting of three heroic quatrains and a rhyming couplet, completely in iambic pentameter. Despite the poem essentially being one sentence, four stanzas can hence be divided. Distinctive of Elizabethan sonnets, there exists the volta, in-between the third quatrain and the couplet, where Keats reaches his epiphany and settles the questions that have been plaguing him. From the natural stanza structure of an Elizabethan sonnet then, there is already the basis of some organization and a conclusion. Keats’ thoughts are made clearer by the natural stanza structure of the Elizabethan sonnet, where the first three stanzas are generally an exposition of an idea, and the final couplet offers an aphorism.
The four stanzas each contain their own respective concepts, which overlap. This similarity in content is reflected in a shared structure: again, the quatrains are all heroic stanzas of iambic pentameter. Furthermore, all the quatrains begin with the subordinate clause of “when”: “When I have fears”, “When I behold”, and “And when I feel”. The couplet begins with “then”, which as an eye rhyme, also indicates some kinship. This similarity in structure also emphasizes Keats’ concern with the passage of time; indeed, his lament of the pithiness of existence is a recurring motif. Interestingly, the verb following the subordinate clause “when” for the three quatrains give a hint as to what the stanza’s subject deals with. The first stanza is about “fear”; the second is about awe, as Keats “beholds” beauty; the third stanza is one of emotion, of “feel”. Here, it is clear that the structure of the stanza reflects its content, and serves to divide the poem by its premise. It should also be noted that the quatrains are separated by semi-colons—indicating their close relationship that does not warrant a full stop. It is also interesting to note that the final quatrain begins with a conjunction, reiterating it is the end.
The first stanza introduces the theme of mortality, explicitly stating through anaphora Keats’ fear that he will die “Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain, / Before high piled books”. More importantly however, the first stanza serves to emphasize that the poem is a deeply personal one, about Keats’ own fears and anxieties. The monosyllabic first line’s scansion places the emphasis twice on “I”, reiterating Keats’ position as the author. Furthermore, the first line has long vowels, giving it further weight and emphasis. This idea is supported by the use of possessives in relation to important symbols in the metaphor: “my pen has glean’d my teeming brain”. The pen and brain serve as metonymies for Keats’ poetry and his ideas respectively, with the possessives emphasizing again the individual. The ABAB rhyming structure of the heroic stanza also supports this. The end rhymes of “I may cease to be” with “in charact’ry” explicitly states Keats’ fear that he will die before he can finish his ideas. The other rhyme of “Glean’d my teeming brain” and “Garners the full-ripen’d grain” subtly compares Keats’ mind to a bountiful yield, ready to be harvested. The second and fourth lines are associated through the use of a lexical set with farming diction. Both begin with dynamic verbs with connotations of reaping, use an elision, and have alliteration to further stress the association. It is important to understand that Keats is not only afraid of the end of his own existence. Rather, by associating his identity so deeply with poetry, Keats is more afraid that he will be unable to finish his poetry.
The second stanza elaborates on the idea that death means the end of his poetic ambitions. The emphasis here is on the scale of poetry, Keats’ contextual insignificance, and the brevity of his life. There is heavy use of imagery and metaphors, particularly associated with nature. Strong juxtaposition is in works, the magnitude of the night sky diminishing Keats’ size. As a Romantic, Keats would have encouraged raw emotions and untamed nature. In this sense, the reader understands that the beauty and magnificence of the world is where Keats draws his inspiration. He “traces / Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance”. The premodifier of “magic” is significant, for it confers great weight and beauty upon this task. It is also interesting that Keats can only capture “their shadows”, and not the true noumena. Keats realizes that poetry is far too wide a landscape for one brief lifetime to cover, and an imitation must be satisfactory. Here Keats’ meditations on poetry can possibly be found, particularly in relation to his Romantic roots. Romanticism stresses both the individual and nature. The “teeming brain” in the first stanza suggests inherent personal creativity, while the second stanza suggests that inspiration must also come from the real world. This is explicitly stated with “When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face, / Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance”. Personification is used for the night, so the reader can truly understand how small a person Keats feels compared to an infinite cosmic giant. The second line overtly reiterates the size of the sky (and thus, the insignificance of the author), as well as noting that the skies are “cloudy symbols of a high romance”. The sky can be seen as symbolic of general beauty and muse. “High” can be also be a pun on the vertical height of clouds, or the magnificent splendor of the world. It is noteworthy that Keats uses “romance”, which can be seen as a reference and lead-on to the third stanza, which centers around love.
The third quatrain is the most ambiguous ambiguous, so the hint in the second stanza is useful. The interpretation is dependent on what the “fair creature of an hour” represents. Keats could be writing about poetry, romantic love, fame, or any other idea that Keats values. While all are possible versions, the structure of the stanza seems to indicate that Keats is speaking about love, specifically his love for poetry. The third quatrain is notable for being shorter than the others—the last line is truncated. Hence, the third quatrain ends on an exclamation, “Of unreflecting love!” Iambic pentameter and the exclamation place the stress on the “love”, suggesting it is the primary emotion here. This is further reiterated by the euphonic pre-modifier, “fair creature”. Clearly, Keats is very fond of this unknown character. The evidence points towards the creature being a personification of poetry. Keats notes the “faery power / Of unreflecting love!” The pre-modifier “faery” has connotations of magic. This could refer to the second stanza’s “magic hand of chance”. Thus, through analysis of the third stanza’ structure and previous stanzas, an interpretation can be created. This stanza structure can also be seen to mirror its content. Just like how emphasis is placed on the transience in the poem, “of an hour”, so the quatrain adheres to its contents by being the shortest.
Up until the volta, Keats has delved into his thoughts on poetry in the face of mortality. Initially Keats would appear to regret that there is not more time for poetry. As a result, he never reaches his maximum potential in terms of fame, writing, or appreciation of poetry. Ultimately, what Keats fears isn’t simply death. Rather, he fears the death of his art.
Through his three quatrains contemplating poetry’s place in a mortal world, Keats reaches a resolution. While the previous stanzas have been structured around time, each stanza beginning with “When”, the final stanza begins firmly in a place: “then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone”. Keats has effectively reached the end of his journey, and is at his destination. He is on the threshold of boundaries. On one side, is his desire for fame, respect, love. On the other, are the great eternal seas, where Keats and his poetry are trivial in the face of the “wide world”. Keats is alone in this decision.
The solution ultimately, is highlighted through anastrophe, “Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” The inversion of the second half of the sentence places emphasis on “nothingness”. Romanticism stresses the intransience of nature. It is only through accepting that the passage of time is inevitable, that love and fame will eventually crumble, that Keats will cease to fear. Importantly, Keats is still existent, “and think / Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink”. Despite love and fame having disappeared, Keats is still there, thinking. His poetry will outlive his desires, and be his legacy amidst the nothingness. As a result of accepting the transience of superficial goals, Keats’ poetry has reached a purer form, untainted by the impermanent desires of its author.
Stanza structure has a significant impact on Keats’ “When I Have Fears”. By taking the traditional Elizabethan sonnet, Keats inherits a natural framework. Keats changes this by inserting the volta half a line earlier, creating a personal structure that better reflects the philosophies of the poem. Through manipulation of stanza structure, Keats can ultimately give greater weight and organization to his themes and ideas.