On the Thought of Nothiness
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Thoughts of self-grandeur and glory often lead to disappointment, yet, in many instances, a person will find themselves indulging in these delusions, which can wreak havoc on the ego, or self. No absolute method exists to rectify these delusions, but as in John Keats’s poem, “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” a poem that addresses the fears of being forgotten, especially the unprofessed ideas lodged in one’s mind, a person can “…think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink” (Keats 220). The idea of using introspection to tackle problems of the ego seemed a bit ironic, yet the speaker of the poem resolves his or her issues with fears of fading away. The speaker seems to understand that creation for the sake of fame and love is unnatural, and rather, creation arises from “…the magic hand of chance” and some “…fairy power” (Keats 220). Through the elements of form, diction, and imagery, Keats develops a poem that addresses the inconstancy of thought and ego, especially how thought’s creation must remain fluid and natural, even in the face of structure.
The form of “When I have fears that I may cease to be” contributes to the idea that thought and ego are inconstant, even when thought’s offspring adhere to strict organization. This poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, and for the most part, all the guidelines for such a sonnet are adhered, except at instances of realization, where an extra stressed syllable is added. Because the poem is a Shakespearean sonnet, a poetic form that is highly structured and associated with a person such as Shakespeare, the speaker automatically embodies the notions of ego and self-grandeur. Even attempting a sonnet imbues a sense of ego or pride in one’s ability to manipulate language and its many nuances, so by shaping his or fears according to a sonnet, the speaker seems bent on establishing a sense of pride. Furthermore, the structure of the poem contrasts sharply with the unstructured thoughts of the speaker, and because the poem’s structure fails in organizing the speaker’s thoughts, the speaker realizes that thought, a precursor to fear, is inconstant and ever-changing, making fear inconstant. This structure of thoughts becomes too hard to maintain in a few instances, and as a result, the meter shifts, exemplifying the inconstancy of thoughts. The lines, “And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,” “Never have relish in the fairy power,” and “Till love and fame to nothingness do sink,” all contain an extra stressed syllable, contrasting with the iambic pentameter of the rest of the poem (Keats 220). Because these lines occur during moments in which the speaker is addressing ideas of great significance, such as time, chance, and thought, structure cannot contain the ideas, and that truly meaningful topics require space to grow.
The diction, or peculiar word choice, of this poem furthers the notion that, despite a poem’s constancy, the ideas within a poem are never absolute. The word “when” is perhaps the most important word in this poem, for it begins the poem and establishes the sense of conditional ideas, specifically ideas regarding being forgotten and lost to the nothingness of humanity. The entire poem, due to its position after “when,” is absolute as long the speaker has fears of being forgotten or dying before discovering love or fame, and as such the entire poem teeters much like “high piled books” (Keats 220). “When” also concerns time and a specific moment in time, but because ideas cannot be constrained to a single moment in time, a poem exploring ideas and thought cannot be specific; rather, the poem remains inconstant and flowing with time. While “when” may be the most significant word in this poem, the speaker’s use of “I” proves to be of great significance as well, for “I” signifies that the speaker focuses upon him or her self instead of exploring a much larger point of view. The speaker resorts to using “I” seven times, which averages one “I” per every two lines, and as this poem lasts only fourteen lines, the speaker’s inflated sense of self and self-pity resonates strongly, creating a lasting impression that the speaker worries much more about everlasting fame than anything else. However, even the speaker’s ego sinks into nothingness with love and fame, for the speaker refrains from referring to his or her self in the very last line of the poem, which, due to the poetic structure, provides the answer to the speaker’s fears about ceasing to exist.
Similar to the speaker’s sense of self, the imagery utilized in the poem does not exist in an eternal state of glory, and through these fleeting images, the speakers realizes the inconstancy of thought. In the first quatrain, the speaker uses the harvest of grain as a metaphor for the fruition of ideas, emphasizing that books, “Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain,” and although grain is a tangible object, grain lasts for a limited amount of time (Keats 220). The metaphor also presents the idea that developing and honing ideas is as simple as harvesting grain, but as the speaker progresses through his introspection, he or she realizes that giving birth to ideas is not very simple. In the second quatrain, the speaker emphasizes that through writing, “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” are traced “…with the magic hand of chance” (Keats 220). By suggesting that writers, or writing, give shape to the clouds and abstract reality, the speaker conveys the idea that the birth of ideas is indefinite, and that creation comes about through chance. In the last quatrain, the speaker suggests that his ideas or writings are a “…fair creature of an hour” and “…fairy power,” two metaphors that present ideas as living and even mystical, and at this moment the poem begins to lose a bit of structure (Keats 220). The presentation of ideas as living creatures instills the notion that little possibility exists of controlling one’s ideas, and if the ideas can shift in nature, then the fears and sense of ego may shift as well.
The use of form, diction, and imagery present the poem in such a way to suggest that introspection is naturally indulgence in one’s ego, and only the elements of time can shift the introspection into something more outward in nature, specifically concern for one’s surroundings. In this poem, the harvest of introspective ideas, or the process of writing down these ideas of self, lead the speaker to “…the shore / Of the wide world…” to “…think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink” (Keats 220). This final realization suggests that writing should take on a more natural and fluid state, one that encompasses more than just the self, because indulgence in self leads to nothingness.