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‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ by John Keats (1795–1821)

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With comment by John Birtwhistle

When I have fears that I may cease to be

 Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, gleaned = harvested the last grains

Before high-pilèd books, in charactery, charactery = finished lettering1

 Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain; garners = grain stores

When I behold, upon the night's starred face,

 Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, romance = imaginative story2

And think that I may never live to trace

 Their shadows with the magic hand of chance; hand of chance: the poet plays along

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, with accidents of language

 That I shall never look upon thee more,

Never have relish in the fairy power fairy = enchanting

 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 died of tuberculosis aged twenty-five. Having trained in medicine, he could recognise his own symptoms. Coughing onto his pillow, he calmly directed his friend: ‘Bring me the candle, Brown, and let me see this blood… I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood; —I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop of blood is my death-warrant—I must die.’3 Keats enclosed his sonnet ‘When I have …

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  • Correspondence to John Birtwhistle,

  • Provenance Milnes RM, ed. Life. Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats London: Edward Moxon, 1848. Spelling and punctuation modernized.