"When I Have Fears…"

January 31: On this day in 1818 John Keats sent a letter to his friend, J. H. Reynolds, which included the newly written sonnet "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be." The poem is now one of Keats's most famous, and when it was published a quarter-century after his death, it helped cement the pale-and-dying legend which surrounds his last years. Keats had lost his mother to tuberculosis, his brother would die of the disease later in the year, and he was already showing symptoms; the sonnet is often read as poignant prophecy, soon fulfilled:

When I have fears that I may cease to be

    Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,

Before high-piled books, in charactery,

    Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;

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;

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.

And yet Keats's original letter is full of opposite tones, and a different sort of verse. Keats begins with some cheeky lines he has composed on a youthful theme—time a-wasting, blushing maidens with "loosen'd hips," and the taste of forbidden fruit:

There's a sigh for yes, and a sigh for no,

         And a sigh for 'I can't bear it'—

O what can be done, shall we stay or run?

         O cut the sweet apple and share it!

Keats then apologizes to Reynolds that his buoyant spirits have the best of him. His intention was to write "a serious poetical Letter," but "It is a sun-shiny day and I cannot so here goes…." There follows a fifty-line toast to golden sunshine, to friendship, and to getting poetically drunk on "the glory and grace of Apollo":

Hence Burgundy, Claret & port

         Away with old Hock and Madeira

Too couthly ye are for my sport

         There's a Beverage brighter and clearer….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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