Romantic readings: ‘When I have fears’ by John Keats

by Suzie Grogan.
John Keats has always been ‘my’ poet.  I bought my first Collected Poems as a twelve-year-old in a wonderful bookshop in Totnes, where we were staying on holiday from our home in North London. Keats had been the subject of  a ‘Blue Peter Special Assignment’, introduced by Valerie Singleton, only a few weeks before and, whilst my sister was mooning over the Bay City Rollers, I found myself drawn to a dead poet.

The wicked rumour that there are three people in my marriage is largely untrue. My husband has never felt threatened by ‘Mister John Keats five feet high’, dead for nearly 200 years. He has dutifully accompanied me on visits to houses and gravesides in Rome and the recently refurbished House in Hampstead. But he draws the line at reading any of the poetry.

This is not a piece written by a Keats scholar, but I am a dedicated and well-informed enthusiast. I read widely; biographies, collections and critical essays fill three full book shelves. I don’t always understand, but I respond.  His poetry enters my soul and speaks to me with as much strength now as it did when I was a brooding teenager, a lovelorn student, a mother, a patient and now a writer.

And it is as that writer, focusing as I do on the social history of the experience of mental illness, that Keats has supported me most. In his own letter to Benjamin Bailey in May 1818 (when his greatest work was yet to be written) he expressed well that lethargy many writers feel when the words simply will not form themselves into anything worthy of the word ‘writing’:
“However I am now so depressed that I have not an Idea to put to paper–my hand feels like lead-and yet it is and unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence – I don’t know what to write-Monday – You see how I have delayed-and even now I have but a confused idea of what I should be about my intellect must be in a degen[er]ating state – it must be for when I should writing about god knows what I am troubling you with Moods of my own Mind or rather body – for Mind there is none.  I am in that temper that if I were under Water I would, scarcely kick to come to the top…”

Sometimes it is impossible to see the possibility of success. Even if we have no ambition to write, other hopes and ambitions are there behind the routine of everyday existence. Even if things have gone relatively well, there is always that creeping doubt that besets the imagination. It can undermine almost everything you have worked to achieve.

So I recommend everyone to turn to John Keats…..
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
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 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.

In 1818, John Keats was just beginning to mature as a poet, leaving behind early friendships that limited his work or took it in directions that ill-suited him. By the autumn of that year he would be starting the fourteen or so months of startling creativity that produced much of the work for which he is best known today – the ‘Great Odes’, The Eve of St Agnes, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Lamia – his poetic development happened with astonishing speed.  In January of 1818, when he included this sonnet in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, he was still finding his original ‘voice’ and working through his poetic philosophy.

Full of this demon self-doubt, fearing failure, recognising that even given his talent he would have to work hard to achieve ‘greatness’ he seems almost desperate and full of anxiety in the sonnet. But I think it is more complex than that and believe it is why it has always spoken to me as an aspiring writer in a way few poems can. It expresses the fear and doubt whilst using language that hints at success and completion – the ripening of the grain and the ‘fullness’ suggesting the successful harvest of a fertile imagination. It inspires with the image of the nourishing nature of art itself as books are filled with words as the ‘garners’ (the granaries) are filled with grain. Whatever his concerns for the future Keats has an essential belief in the possibility of his genius.

Of course you can just read this as a beautiful, if melancholy, poem that presages rather spookily Keats’ early death. It is the first poem I learned off by heart, aged just twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since; its regular metre suiting the rhythm of my stride as I recite it to myself, walking quickly to keep up with our dog on a long walk.

Not everyone wants to be a writer, but we all have doubts about the future, especially at the moment. Yes, you can read the poem as one of potential disappointment, fear of failure and anxiety at a lack of success. But the last lines seem to me to look out over the edge of our world, casting old thoughts aside and offering us a chance to put things into perspective.

Suzie Grogan is a London-born professional writer and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book Dandelions and Bad Hair Days: Untangling lives affected by depression and anxiety was published in 2012 and her second, Shell Shocked Britain, will be published by Pen & Sword History in October 2014 She has two further commissions, including one on the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century.
Suzie Grogan
A lover of the written word in all its forms, Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and also presents a local radio show Talking Books. Married with two children – one a philosopher, one a high jumper – she lives in Somerset but has her heart in the Lake District and London. Her long-standing passion for poetry, especially John Keats, has led to
the wicked rumour that there are three people in her marriage….