When I Have Fears
By John Keats
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;
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;
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.
I don't know why this poem struck me so much the other night. I read it to the children at dinner. Reading entire books aloud has become too difficult with everyone's schedules, but I decided we could fit in a poem a night, at dinner. The rule is to pick a poem quickly, from the Norton Anthology, even at random, and it has to be less than a page long. The 5th grader is into it. She loves to read aloud. The 9th grader endures it, sometimes with interest, despite herself. We've been at it since school started. I agree with the 5th grader. It is more fun to read aloud than to be read to; but it's good to do both.
Okay, I do know why this poem struck me. It's because Keats is laying out his ambition and his fears. He's worried about dying before he gets all the good creative stuff out. He doesn't just want to get the "grains" out of his "teeming brain," though. He wants to put them into books. Plural. A stack of them. "High-piled." He wants success, people, and he's in a hurry.
He doesn't only want writing success, however. He also wants success in love. He wants it all. Well-rounded success. I can relate. And I have the benefit of history, which tells me Keats was right to be in a hurry. He was ill, and he died at 26. He loved Fanny Brawne, but things didn't go smoothly, because he had money troubles.
How does this relate to me? I am now closer to being twice Keats' last age than his last age, and I struggle with fear and ambition, too. I am under no illusion, however, that I'll write anything that will outlast me, and that causes me melancholy. Furthermore, there’s the existential fear his last two lines evoke. The realization that against the vast “wide world,” love and fame “sink to nothingness.” So the struggle for success runs into the problem of eternity, against which any single human’s efforts seem pointless. As my elder daughter used to fret—always at bedtime, the inevitable sunrise of unassuageable fears—the sun is eventually going to explode and swallow up the earth.
Judging by those last lines, however, Keats views this eventual oblivion with equanimity. Perhaps that’s too much to ask of a nine or ten-year old child, but it works for me.
In the meantime, I am grateful I am tuberculosis-free, and only have a faint rash, probably caused by the synthetic fibers in my new workout shirts (according to the dermatologist.) So life goes. A little poetry, a little steroid cream, some generalized free-floating anxiety.
I am grateful to Keats. And I’m grateful for my family, something I achieved, which he did not. My DNA will mutate and evolve into eternity. Or at least until the Red Giant explodes. Keats and I, however, will be on equal footing long before that.
© Hope A. Perlman, November 2012
In slightly altered form, this post appeared on http://www.unmappedcountry.com