external image john-keats-engraving.jpgThey will explain themselves - as all poems should do, without any comment.
John Keats to his brother George, 1818




John Keats's literary career amounted to just three and a half years. It began in July 1816 after he passed his chemist examination at Guy's Hospital and lasted until late 1819. He was only 25 years old when he died. Keats wrote his own epitaph, which describes his belief that he would not be remembered: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water".
Keats wrote 150 poems, but those upon which his reputation rests were written in the span of nine months, from January to September 1819.


This poem was sent in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, dated 31 January 1818. It has since become one of the poet's most famous compositions.
Note: This is an example of a Petrarchan sonnet – this means it has 14 lines and a regular rhyme scheme and a regular rhythm. It is divided into an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines). The octave and the sestet have different rhyme schemes. The last two lines of the sonnet are a rhyming couplet (‘think’ & ‘sink’)



'The great beauty of Poetry is, that it makes every thing, every place interesting - '
John Keats to his brother George, 1819


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.

* Glean’d – harvested or gathered up

    • Teeming – full, busy (we can say the sea is ‘teeming’ with fish)
    • Charactry – letters of the alphabet (so he means: words, phrases etc.)
    • Fair Creature –
the 'fair creature of an hour' is believed to be the same unidentified woman addressed in 'Fill for me a brimming bowl' and

An extract from 'Fill for me a brimming bowl' in which he speaks of the same woman…


In vain! away I cannot chace
The melting softness of that face,


Had she but known how beat my heart,
And with one smile reliev'd its smart
I should have felt a sweet relief,
I should have felt ``the joy of grief.''

Extracts from ‘To a Lady seen for a few moments at Vauxhall’. The poem begins with the speaker addressing the unnamed woman. It has been five years since he caught sight of her and yet no matter what he look upon, he is reminded of her.


‘And yet I never look on midnight sky,
But I behold thine eyes' well memory'd light;
I cannot look upon the rose's dye,
But to thy cheek my soul doth take its flight.’

‘Thou dost eclipse
Every delight with sweet remembering,
And grief unto my darling joys dost bring’.


Some thoughts…
Before we begin it is important to note that this poem has been described as being “conscious of itself as the poem of a poet” (Hecht, 1994).

Octave: The speaker expresses his fear of dying. He fears that he will not fulfil himself as a writer and poet (lines 1-8) and that death will take him before he has been able to write all the words down that he has inside him
Sestet:Here the speaker expresses sadness that death will forever separate him from the woman he loves. He chooses to resolve his fears by asserting the unimportance of love and fame because they are temporary and accepting that in this world we essentially all die alone.
In the opening line of the poem, the speaker expresses a fear of “cease(ing) to be”, not just of dying. People are remembered in death; ‘ceasing to be’ implies being wiped from memory and completely forgotten.
The first quatrain (four lines) emphasises both how fertile the speaker believes his mind to be and how much he still yearns to write about; he achieves this through linking his potential for ‘charactry’ (words) to the imagery of a harvest. Words such as "glean'd," and "garners," are typically suggestive of a harvest. The speaker is suggesting that his words could be as plentiful and as ‘nourishing’ as silos of "full ripen'd grain". The potential abundance of this ‘harvest of words’ is also alluded to through the use of adjectives such as "high-piled" and "rich". In this sense the speaker is both the field of grain and the harvester, as his “teeming brain” ripens his words into poetry. The speaker expresses sadness that his internal harvest, his ‘field of poetry and prose’ will never be fully harvested before he dies. His fear then is not just about death, but about failing to achieve his full potential during the time he has been alive.

In the next quatrain (lines 5-8), he sees the world as a rich source of poetic images, like the “night’s starr’d face”. Images that he would love to trace with “the magic hand of chance”, but sadly never will. It is not the limitations of his mind that the speaker is lamenting, but rather the limitations of his life that will prevent him from expressing everything he still wishes to write about through his poetry.

In the third quatrain (lines 9-12), he turns his attentions to love. He expresses sadness when he thinks about the fact that death will forever separate him from the possibility of experiencing romantic love in his lifetime. He speaks of a “fair creature of an hour” rather than of ‘this hour’, which could suggest that the woman that he is referring to is someone he may have met, but whom he has not yet had a chance to pursue. His regret seems to lie in the realisation that he does not have enough time to explore this love and soon he will “never look upon (her) more”. The quatrain itself is only three and a half lines long, as opposed to the usual four lines of a Shakespearean sonnet; the effect of this compression or shortening, mimics a slight speeding-up of time, just as the speaker feels time is running out for him.

The speaker’s awareness and preoccupation with time is evident throughout the sonnet. His uses words like ‘when’ and ‘before’ and ‘may never’ and this infuses the poem with a quiet sadness that ends in the speaker seeming to resign himself to the fact that he will never complete his life’s works and never experience the “faery power” of love again.
In these final two and a half lines of the sonnet, the speaker seems ready to distance himself emotionally from his life and regrets. He sees himself as separate from "the wide world" as he stands alone on the shore. It is as if he is acknowledging a threshold, literally between land and sea and symbolically between making the transition from fear of losing both love and fame, by allowing them to sink to ‘nothingness’ so that he can cease to be afraid.
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What must be noted is that although the speaker’s fears seem to be rooted in his mortality and the limitations of life, it is this same limitation that actually grants him the freedom from ultimate despair. If death renders everything to nothing, then surely there is really no need to worry so much about what you manage to achieve in life?

References:
· Brotter, C. (2010) John Keats, Article Posted [November 2010]. Accessed [07 February 2011].
· Hecht, J. (1994) Scarcity and Poetic Election in Two Sonnets of John Keats. UK: Routledge.
· <http://www.poemhunter.com/john-keats/ > John Keats. Poem Hunter. Accessed [05 February 2011].
· <http://englishhistory.net/keats/marilee.html> The life and works of John Keats. Site last updated [January 2010]. English History. Accessed [05 February 2011]. _