When I have fears: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in When I have fears

The poem’s imagery vividly suggests Keats’ feelings about the process of composing his poems. The word ‘teeming’ conveys the limitless fertility of the creative imagination. Like the soil in which crops are planted, the human brain produces a rich harvest to be ‘gleaned’ by the poet’s pen and stored for posterity on the printed pages of books. The choice of images from the world of nature further suggests that the process is an essential part of Keats’ being. Creativity for him is inevitable and lies beyond his conscious control.

The final image is of the poet standing alone ‘on the shore / Of the wide world’. All his personal ambitions and anxieties are drained of significance as he contemplates the ubiquity and finality of death.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in When I have fears

  • How does Keats use imagery to make the reader aware of just how much he has to offer as a poet?

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud by John ConstableThemes of When I have fears

The poem’s themes echo those found in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Keats’ fear that death will rob him of success and fame as a poet – as well as denying him the opportunity to enter into a full and loving relationship - is similar to the concerns of Sonnet 64 (‘When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d’) and Sonnet 60 (‘Like as the waves makes towards the pebbled shore’). 

Like Shakespeare, the poem’s writer seems not only to fear the ravages of time and inevitability of death, but also feels anxiety about his poetic achievement and reputation.

Investigating themes of When I have fears

  • Some readers have suggested that this poem is more concerned with Keats’ fear that he could fail as a poet than with the threat of early death which he prophesies. Can you find any evidence to support this view?
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