When I have fears that I may cease to be
You could think of John Keats as the Heath Ledger of his time: famous, talented, and destined to die far, far too young. In fact, Keats was only 25 when he died in 1821. Like Ledger, Keats cut a pretty dashing figure. The ladies swooned for him. Heck, the men swooned for him, too. When he died at the tender young age of 25, he had already penned poems and letters that would become the cornerstones of the Romantic movement.
Like most tragic heroes, Keats never lived to see the public appreciate his work. In fact, during his life, pretty much every paper and publication rejected him. It was only after his death that his poetry collections (including such all-time hits as "Ode to a Nightingale" and Endymion) received the critical acclaim they were due.
Unlike Heath Ledger, Keats was pretty morbidly fascinated with the thought of his own demise. See, he spent most of his youth and adulthood suffering from tuberculosis, a disease that brought him into frequent contact with the possibility of death. Keats was a total Romantic. That's Romantic with a big "R" – this describes a group of writers kicking around in the 1800s. Like his Romantic buddies, he was a big fan of huge, sweeping, mind-blowing emotion. Keats managed to ratchet up that emotion by adding in a huge dose of mortality to most of his works. Life, you see, is fleeting.
If you read "When I have fears that I may cease to be," you'll find a prime example of just this sort of mentality. Written in 1818, the poem was originally enclosed in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats' BFF. The poem's practically a primer for Keats' own psyche. It lays on the line his desperate desire for love and success. It also shows his certainty that he'll die before they come his way. Sure, it's a little morbid – but it's also ridiculously good.
Why Should I Care?
There are a few things that just about everyone in the world can agree on:
- Love's a pretty okay thing, all things considered.
- Given the choice between being nobody and being Somebody, we'd probably all choose to be Somebody.
- And everybody, absolutely everybody, is going to die at some point or another.
Toss those three things together in a poem, and you've got the must-read for the century. As it turns out, that's pretty close to what Keats wrote when he penned "When I have fears that I may cease to be."