Poetic creativity and the fear of death

Jessica Lim considers the urgency of Keats’ poetry in the face of death.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
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.

John Keats

John Keats was well aware of the impermanence of life. In his short life, plagued by illness, he watched watched his mother, father, and brother die. He also trained for six years in the medical field and worked at Guys Hospital⎯a longer duration than the time Keats spent as a published poet. Brown records Keats’s reaction to his first haemorrhage: ‘I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop is my death warrant. I must die.’

‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ feels like one of Keats’s most intimate, anxious reflections on the effect of his untimely death. His fears are twofold: that he will die before he has realised his poetic potential; and that when he dies he will leave behind the woman he loves. It is a poem with a changing pulse: the first line with its languid, elongated vowels creates a contemplative, longing mood. The next two lines with their repeated ‘Before’, with its plosive consonant, create a sense of urgency. What if, the poet asks, this end comes before I have achieved my potential? There is almost a panic in Keats’s image of a ‘teeming brain’ that will not be ‘gleaned’: a fear that his metaphorical grain-houses, those triumphant ‘high-pilèd books’ will not be filled in time. In a practical sense, this first quatrain expresses the poet’s fear: what if I don’t get to write enough, to do enough before death comes for me? The following quatrain examines his fear not that he will not produce enough, but that he will not capture the visions of beauty and transcendence that he seeks: tracing the ‘cloudy symbols’ of romance on the face of the moon. It is a poet’s fear that the poet’s work will never capture that fleeting quality, that, ironically, gives a piece its staying power. What if my poetry isn’t as good, as profound as I want it to be?

In the final quatrain, Keats muses on his loss in having to leave behind his beloved’s ‘unreflecting love.’ The thought of this interpersonal, relational loss is so much to consider, the poet breaks his thoughts and changes scene: ‘⎯then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.’

Where is the consolation in the inevitable coming of an early death? For Keats, it is located only in oblivion: standing at a metaphorical (or literal) shore, he enters a liminal space between land and sea, between stasis and motion. It is the escape into this unchanging, almost impersonal environment that provides Keats an escape from his bustling fears and internal anxieties. For Keats, the best way to find freedom from fear of an untimely death is not to find meaning in his death. Nor is it to seek a religious or spiritual affirmation in a transcendent life after death. Rather, for Keats, death is an intruder that will cut short his artistic vision and his personal relationship. Therefore the best freedom from the contemplation of death is, he posits, freedom from the contemplation of thought itself: a place where ‘love and fame to nothingness do sink.’

Keats was preoccupied with water: the image of sinking, of losing consciousness and light, and being enveloped in fluid, resonates with the words he chose to have on his tombstone: ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.’ Water, impermanence, a place of forgetting⎯this was the consolation to the anxiety of death that Keats presents to his readers. And yet, we read his work still: if Keats’s name is ‘writ in Water’ it is a paradoxical and strident protest against the impermanence and forgetfulness of literary fame. If Keats managed to reach a mental place where love and fame could sink to ‘nothingness’, it is not a place where we have left him in our cultural memory. What are your thoughts on forgetting, on thought, and the anxiety of death?


Categories: Reflections