When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charactry,
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 fairy 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.
As I was deciding what to read this morning, the title of this poem caught my eye; we all have fears, and I certainly have my share.
In this sonnet, Keats contemplates his death, and specifically, the things he will be unable to accomplish in his life as a result of his impending death. Considering Keats’ health issues associated with tuberculosis, this is understandable. But there is more here than just a “woe is me” sense of self-pity, which allows the reader to connect with what Keats was experiencing.
Keats felt that he had a purpose in life and that he was here for a reason. There were poems he needed to write, books he was meant to read, love he was supposed to experience. And as he stands alone at the threshold, he realizes at a deep level that he will not fulfill his life’s true purpose. This is the key to why this poem affects the reader at such a visceral level. It is a shared human emotion to feel that we each have a purpose in life, that we are here for a reason, to complete certain things. And this feeling becomes more pronounced when death is imminent. As we reflect back and think about what we wanted to achieve but failed to do, our dreams and aspirations “to nothingness do sink.” We have lost our opportunity, and therein is the tragedy of this sonnet.
We all have our “bucket lists,” things we want to do before we die. This poem reminds us that we need to pursue those dreams now, because we may not have time later. There is nothing worse than standing alone “on the shore of the wide world” and thinking: “If only…”