When I Have Fears | Poem by John Keats | Summary Explanation & Questions

When I Have Fears Poem

When I Have Fears

Poet | John Keats

John Keats (1795-!821) was an English Romantic poet. The famous young poet is one of the distinguished and eminent figures of the second generation of romantic poets along with his contemporaries Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, yet his work was a publication for only four years before his death.
The poetry of Keats was characterized by elaborate word choice and sensual imagery, most notably in a series of odes that remain among the most popular poems in English literature. The letters which include the development of his aesthetic theory of negative capability, are among the most celebrated by any English poet.

Summary | Main Idea of the Poem

John Keats wrote this poem in January 1818, when he was twenty-two years old. He had been reading King Lear one of Shakespeare’s last plays and experienced a burst of inspiration that produced several great poems in a few short weeks.
Keats’ some of the poems he wrote were light and humorous, on miner themes like a tribute to a friend’s cat, memories of a cherishing woman he had seen passing, a poem about Robin Hood, and a tribute to one of his favorite drinking parlor, the Mermaid Tavern.
This particular Shakespearian sonnet must have come from more than just reading the old master’s work: Keats was also preoccupied with tending to the severe illness of his brother Tom who was dying of consumption, a hereditary disease. Later in 1818, Tom died. 
In January 1819, a year after this poem was written, John Keats found out that he had consumption too. For a year and a half, he turned out one sad poem after another, feverish with the developing disease and also with thoughts of poetry, love, and death. At the age of twenty-five, he died in 1821. 
When I Have Fears addresses the philosophical problem in three ways. First, Keats expresses his fear about pre-mature death. Second, he worries that death might also interrupt his quest to settle the mystery of man’s existence.
Third, he fears that death will also preclude the possibility of his ever achieving the transcendent experience of unreflecting love that is, the experience of loving without the death-dealing consequences of thought and scrutiny.
The last lines try to synthesize the problem in a way that only precariously avoids disappointment. Fear changes into thought and thought reveals fame and love that are doomed in the end to nothingness. Yet the last fear that of the soul’s fate of the high romance remains truly open to resolution.
When I Have Fears is considered one of Keats’ most successful attempts to write a Shakespearean sonnet. This fourteen-line form begins with three quatrains or four-line parts in which every other line of each part is set in end rhyme. The first three quatrains introduce and describe some kind of problem, concern, or fear.
The Shakespearean sonnet ends with a rhymed couplet where the issue starting in the first twelve lines is resolved. Keats’s poem addresses in the first twelve lines three different aspects of the fear that he may cease to be. Each quatrain discusses a distinct aspect of that fear.
The poem has an ironic structure where the poet gives a lie to his own thoughts. Keats fears that he may die early without describing his high thoughts in a rich language. Many books can be composed by him because his mind has teemed of ideas.
Two images from everyday life stress the poet’s ability to write and the great number of ideas in his mind. His pen is described as selecting the thoughts from his mind like a gleaner who gathers grain in a field. Then the words in his many books show the image of grains.
Rather metaphorically, his pen gleans his brain. But for a proper gleaning, he does not seem to have enough time. If he never writes, the books written by him can contain words just as a food store contains grain. Keats mentions some of his favorite themes.
He has the fear that his life may be short to be able to write all the excellent romances of love and adventure. These romances are suggested by the fine cloudy patterns over a starry night. At night, he glances at the night’s starred face. It is an image in the form of a personification.
The night is presented as a person with a face covered with stars. He also looks at the different patterns of the clouds. He describes these patterns as huge cloudy symbols of high romance. Truly, these clouds and cloudy patterns suggest the poet a romantic adventure and love stories to the poet.
Though Keats wrote or wanted to write of dream worlds or fairylands, his own life was poor and miserable. This romantic poetry of Keats then became an escape from the disturbing pains of life into the world of fantasy and solace.
Keats expresses regret at not being able to enjoy looking long at the magical charms of his beloved for three reasons. Firstly, that he may not live long to be able to look at her beauty often. 
Second, that his living longer for looking at her beauty often may not be useful as his beloved does not reply to his love positively. Third, if she provides him some kind of relief or enjoyment, she herself is a fair creature of an hour, herself going to lose her charm with time.
And ironically, if she grows less beautiful with age, he himself will grow less powerful and attractive with time. So, in many ways, he is a loser. Fate, escape thee I can’t. Here, the idea here is much based on Keats’s personal failure in love with a beautiful actress, Fanny Brawne.
She rejected him mostly because of his low social position as a medical assistant. Then his losing battle against consumption(TB) from which he was suffering, and which nothing could cure was a constant reminder of the oncoming death.
Tom, who had earlier died of the same disease, contributed to his dark outlook or fatalism. His death wish finds adequate expression in his Ode to a Nightingale. Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain.

Explanation and Reference to Context

Lines  1-4

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain
Before high-piled books, in charact’ry
Hold like rich garners the full-ripened grain

Reference and Context

These lines have been taken from the famous sonnet When I Have Fears by John Keats. The poet tells us about his fears in this sonnet. He is suffering from T.B. He has a fear that he may die young. 
He wishes to give expression to all his ideas and relishes his love but all that is impossible due to the transient nature of the temporary life. His brain is teeming with mature thoughts but he fears that he will die before he put them on paper.
He thinks that worldly life is short and a person cannot do all those things which he wants to do. He has many lofty ideas in his mind that he wants to express in his books. The poet also says that love, beauty, and fame all are temporary and short-lived.


These lines reflect the poet’s fears that he may die before he has finished his literary work. His mind is very fertile. It is teeming with literary thoughts and fancies. His mental harvest is not ripe yet. It needs time to become mature. He feels sure of his mental powers. 
He hopes to produce piles of books on the study of human nature and human character. He wants to become a great poet of the world but he fears that his early death will not allow him to fulfill this ambition. He wishes to store his ideas in his books as grain stored in the .store houses.
The main and central image in the first lines presents a comparison between composing poetry and harvesting the crop of grain. The poet compares the pen with an implement of harvest and books with the buildings where grain is stored.
The metaphor expresses the first of the poet’s three main concerns: that death will cut short his poetic career. Just as a person’s natural life spans youth, adulthood, and old age. So the growing of grain follows the natural life progression of seasons.
For the poet, to young, however, precludes his chance of harvesting the fruits of his mind which become ripened only as of the poet’s mature age. These fruits which are poetic works grant the poet’s fame, represented by the high-piled books.

Lines 5-8

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 

Reference to Context

Same as for the lines1-4


In these lines, the poet gives us an idea of his romantic ideal. The poet tells us that he is bestowed with great literary thoughts. He is greatly inspired to see the beautiful objects of nature. He looks at the dark night decorated with stars and clouds. These elements of nature bring to his mind strange ideas of a great romance. 
He wants to put these ideas on paper. The clouds and stars are symbols of mystery and beauty in the universe. The poet wants to write stories of mystery and beauty about these elements of nature with the power of inspiration as all the objects of nature are revolving.
So there is divine power that is guiding and ordering them to move. But he is afraid that he may pass away before such time. Some readers believe that the second stanza is a continuity that discusses the fear of death that will cut short the poet’s poetic career. 
These readers say that the high romance presented by the night clouds is a literary concept and level of artistic expression the poet will never live long to trace or to realize. But another concept is possible. The night is presented as a symbol for the ultimate quarries that haunt man from ancient times.

Lines 9-12

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 unreflected love! O then, on the shore

Reference and Context

Same as for lines 1-4


In these lines, the speaker first addresses his beloved in typically romantic terms, yet the quatrain’s main concern is not the beloved at all. Instead, it is the self. The poet’s meditation for his beloved takes to instantly to his twin fears of time and death.
Because of life’s fleetingness, his love is only for an hour. Further, the consciousness of time and of love’s transience preludes what the speaker suggests is the best kind of love: love devoid of analytical scrutiny and therefore, of the fear of loss and death. 
This kind of love has a fairy power precisely because it is unreflecting. Because the poet’s nature is to be self-conscious, die opposite of unreflecting, he fears he will never experience this kind of love.

Lines 13-15

Of then, on the shore
Of the wide world, I stand alone and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink

Reference and Context

Same as for the lines 1-4


In these lines, the poet consoles himself with the idea that death will put an end to everything. He finds himself standing on the shore of the sea of this world. He feels that worldly love and fame are temporary things. They lose all their importance for him because, after his death, he will enter into an immortal world.
With him will also die his love and fame. In the end, the poet’s identification that he lacks the qualities of unexpressive love leads him to the state of alienation described in the last couplet. Because he is too self-aware to love, he is forced to live alone.
Isolated, he continues to think. But thinking is, in this poem, equal to death. As reflects on time’s inevitable course, two things the poet holds most valuable in life, love, and fame are shown to be insubstantial given the fact of death, and they dissolve into nothingness.
Thus the poet stands on-die shore of the wide world, at die edge of what we perceive in life but also close to what might exist beyond. In this state, there is an indication of solace. While love and fame prove illusory, the high romance of the universe discussed in the second quatrain does not sink into nothingness.

Important Questions and Answers

Question 1

What is the real nature of Keats’ fear in When I Have Fears?
What are John Keats’ fears?
The poem When I Have Fears is a beautiful sonnet. This sonnet has a dignified tone. The poet’s desire for life and his fears of death are tragic and sorrowful. The poet was madly infatuated with a beautiful girl Fanny Brawn but she did not properly appreciate his feelings and sentiments.
This unsuccessful love broke his heart. He was afraid of death. In this piece of art, he expressed the following fears. Firstly, he was an imaginative poet. He had a lot of romantic ideas. He aspired to write his ideas on paper.
But he was afraid that he might die before composing those ideas in his poems. Secondly, he wanted to write a large number of books. In those books, he intended to present his own mental philosophy. He had mature philosophy about life.
But due to the sudden approach to death, he would never be able to write books. Thirdly, he saw clouds in the sky. He had discovered a new beauty and wonder in them. He wanted to express romantic ideas about the clouds in his poems. But he was afraid that he would never be able to write as he had temporary life.
Fourthly, he was in passionate love with a beautiful girl. He wanted to enjoy the delights of love. But he was afraid that his early death would separate his beloved from him. But he felt that beauty and love lose their importance when he would start his journey to the eternal abode.

Question 2

Briefly describe the poet’s various desires which he fears would remain unrealized.
What is the central idea or theme of the poem?
What are Keats’ thoughts about his own life and mortality?


John Keats was a romantic poet. The poem When I have Fears is about the fears of the poet. Keats’ parents died when he was very young. They died because of a fatal disease T.B. Keats’elder brother also died young as a patient of T.B.
He also became prey to this disease. The main cause of the fears of the poet is his disease T.B which was incurable in those days. The poet expresses many fears in this poem but the most dominating fear is the fear of death, he felt that his death was imminent.
The poet fears that he will die very soon without writing some unique poems of English literature. His brain is full of ideas and thoughts. He wants to convert them into books but he fears that he will die before writing his noble and sublime ideas.
When I have fears  that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain 
John Keats is a sensitive poet. He is a great lover of natural beauty. He wants to enjoy beautiful nights full of stars for a long time. The poet gets a great mind full of ideas. His imaginative thoughts are sky-high. The poet looks at the clouds which suggest to his mind subjects capable of being treated romantically.
When I behold upon the night’s starred face 
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance
As a true romantic lover, Keats feels delighted in seeing the face of his beloved. Though he knows that like this mortal world her beauty is also short-lived. He is sad at the thought that after his death he will not be able to feast his eyes on the fascinating face of his beloved.
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour 
That I shall never look upon thee more

The poet has expressed the theme of death in this poem in a romantic and pathetic manner. We are shocked and moved at the tragic death of the poet. His early death deprived the world of a great poet of prolific ideas and imaginations.

We can say that the poet has treated the theme of death from a personal point of view but he has transformed it into the general tragedy of human existence. There is a concept of regret and sadness running the poem. It makes us sad.

Question 3

How reliable and durable are Love and Fame in the eyes of Keats?

What is the importance of love and fame in the life of a diseased person?


This is a beautiful sonnet. The poet says that he feels greatly grieved when he thinks that he may die before seeing and enjoying life fully. He may die before giving expression to all his thoughts. He may not be able to win fame through his poetry.
In the eyes of Keats Love and Fame are very reliable. They have great importance for a living person but for a dead man they are of no importance. The poem When I Have Fears is a sonnet on death. His mind is filled with mature romantic thoughts. But his early death may deprive him of expressing his ideas to the world. 
The poem also death with the theme of love and beauty. Both love and beauty are the favorite themes of Keats’s poetry. Both the themes have been presented in many of his other poems like Ode on a Gracian Urn, Ode to Nightingale, and Endymion.
Here both the themes have been touched with an autobiographic touch. The poet was mad in love with a beautiful girl Fanny Brawne. But she did not properly appreciate his feelings and sentiments. This unsuccessful love broke his heart.
The poet calls his beloved a fair creature of an hour. He fears that he may die before enjoying the blessings of his love and the beauty of his beloved. He fears that he may not be able to create poetry and literature to his heart’s content. 
When the poet’s mind is crowded with many painful doubts and fears he starts thinking about eternity. When he develops a universal outlook, at that time, his own life and death, fame and love, look quite ridiculous and unimportant to him.
According to the poet, love and fame are short-lived and temporary when he views them standing on the shore of eternity. He feels that love and fame have no importance for a man about to die. He believes that life after death is permanent. In this way, he overcomes his fear of death.

Question 4

Discuss the poem When I Have Fears as a romantic poem.


In this poem, When I Have Fears the poet tells us about his personal fear of death. Keats has expressed his fears that he may die before giving shape to his ideas in his teeming brain. Subjectivity is an element of romantic poetry. The poet says:
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain
The poet has presented various elements of nature in this poem. He tells us about night which is full of stars and clouds that have different shapes. The scene of the sky is highly romantic. The poet wants to enjoy this beautiful element of nature.
As a true romantic lover, he feels delighted in seeing the face of his beloved. He also enjoys his sweet company. But he is sad at the thought that after his death he will not be able to feast his eyes on the fascinating face of his beloved.
The last two lines of the poem are a good example of the romantic attitude to life. Here the poet passes from the particular to the universal truth of life. The personal frustration of the poet is transformed into the general tragedy of human existence.
There is a note of sadness and regret running through the poem. The poet presents death as the greatest distress of human life that frustrates all human ambitions and lays waste all valuable human capabilities.
Subjective feelings, love of nature, and mood of the poet indicate that it is a romantic poem. Lyricism, pictorial quality, romantic atmosphere, and sad sentiments are the main features and qualities of this poem.

About the Author

Anila Ibrahim

An educationist, web content writer, equipped with an LLB and a Master’s degree in English Literature, as well as a Master of Philosophy in Entrepreneurship. I have a comprehensive understanding of both the English language and the educational landscape. This academic background empowers Anila to deliver content that is not only informative but also thoroughly researched.

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