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When I have fears that I may cease to be

When I have fears that I may cease to be


by John Keats

Negative Capability

Symbol Analysis

If there's one thing that you need to know about Keats' poetic philosophy, it's these two little words: negative capability. Believe us, it'll show up on a test someday soon. For Keats, it was a philosophical stance, one that allowed him to seek out and dwell in the uncertainties of life without trying to make sense of it all. Art (like, say, poetry) is key to this project: poetry allows Keats to play though his uncertainties in all sorts of wonderful and really, really uncomfortable ways.

  • Line 1: Keats begins the poem with a deliberate contemplation of his death – an uneasy image to begin the poem with.
  • Line 5-8: An elaborate metaphor allows Keats to imagine love as something that is written on the night sky. It's an image that is both delightful and far, far too grand to contemplate on a personal level. Love suddenly becomes huge and terrifying, something not to be undertaken by mere mortals.
  • Lines 11-12: Love becomes a fairy power in this metaphor, something which makes it both super-magical and, well, supernatural. In other words, like most versions of negative capability, Keats pushes love to two very different extremes.
  • Lines 12-14: The image of the speaker pulling away from the world to stand on its shore is another one of the huge, cataclysmic gestures that creates the force behind Keats' idea of negative capability. It allows him to imagine love and fame as both the most important things in the world and as absolutely unimportant.

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