When I have fears: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in When I have fears

Throughout the sonnet Keats transforms abstract ideas into concrete and vividly pictorial images:
  • The first quatrain suggests just how much Keats feels he has stored in his creative imagination. The language is that of overflowing fecundity: ‘gleaned’, ‘teeming’, ‘rich garners’, ‘full-ripened grain’
  • The second quatrain has language which is more abstract as he contemplates the beauty of the stars: ‘symbols’, ‘romance’, ‘shadows’, ‘magic’, ‘chance’
  • The third quatrain focuses on feminine beauty and human love and the sorrow of loss. Notice the poignant effect of the stressed ‘f’s in ‘feel, fair’, ‘faery’ and ‘unreflecting’ and the repetition of ‘never’ in lines 10 and 11 (the latter gaining emphasis by being an inverted foot
  • The final couplet’s desolation is enhanced by all the long vowel sounds in ‘wide world … alone’ and the clipped endings of ‘think’ and ‘sink’.

Investigating language and tone in When I have fears

  • The lightness suggested by the lines describing the ‘fair creature of an hour’ is followed by a feeling of heaviness. How are these contrasting effects created?
  • How does Keats use language to convey his fears that he will be reduced to ‘nothingness’?

Structure and versification in When I have fears

This sonnet shows the extent of Shakespeare’s influence on Keats. It adopts the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet (abab cdcd ef ef gg). 
Each quatrain is heralded by a ‘when’, building an anticipation in the reader which is addressed by the final resolution signalled by ‘then’. The first quatrain focuses on concrete ideas of creative harvest; the second on intangible metaphors for passion; the third relates the intangible with a concrete object, though the speaker’s feelings are still unrealised. The final idea starts in the middle of line 12 as the poet sets the personal against the immensity of the wide world. 
Most of the lines are end-stopped, the ends of lines coinciding with grammatical pauses. However, the [3enjambement3 between l.1/2 indicates the urgency of the speaker’s feelings, whilst the same technique in l. 7/8 and 11/12 conveys the speaker’s desire to live out his dreams and experience realised human love (as well as write creatively about it).
Although iambic pentameter predominates, Keats draws our attention to the fecundity of his mind with two spondees in l.4: ‘rich garners’ ‘full-ripened’ and then to the arresting impact of the darkened sky with a triple stress – ‘night’s starr’d face’, followed by a spondee, ‘Huge cloudy’. Twice he focuses the reader’s thoughts by having two stresses either side of a caesura – ‘feel, fair’ (l.9) and ‘love; - then’ (l.12). By contrast, although one would expect to have an [iamb3], there is naturally no additional stress in the word ‘nothingness’ in l. 14, conveying the ‘sinking away’ of significance.

Investigating structure and versification in When I have fears

  • What do you think would be the effect of the poem if Keats had arranged the subject matter of the three quatrains in a different order?
  • What is the impact of the final idea appearing in the middle of the twelfth line, rather than at the start of line 13?
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