WHEN I HAVE FEARS
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.
When I first read in college this sonnet by John Keats, written in 1818, published in 1848, it knocked me out.
I loved the pile-up of “when’s,” the way the poem coiled tighter and tighter, until finally, in the middle of line 10, it started to release its conclusion. It was essentially an argument, with various consolations or rewards rejected in turn, like doors closing one after another. Syntax, that mighty literary tool, which is responsible for possibly one-half the charm of John Ashbery poems, and which I have since followed gladly through all the twists and turns of Samuel Johnson’s, Henry James’, Proust’s, Thomas Bernhardt’s etc. sentences, had cast its spell on me. When when when–then! But there was something more holding me to that poem. I identified with this young man’s fears that he would never live long enough to achieve the promise of his writing ambition or find happiness in romantic love. And in a sense, this premonition was right: Keats did die too young, though he wrote as beautifully as any poet can. Years later, I paid my homage by visiting the rooms where he died, above the Spanish Steps in Rome. Still later, in the current year 2021, I have managed to write a shelf-full of books which may not “hold rich garners of full-ripen’d grain,” but are adequate for their purposes, and I have been married to the same woman for over thirty years. But when I read this poem the first time, I was an adolescent, filled with doubts about my capacity to write well enough or attract the affection of women. So much so that I tried to kill myself when I was seventeen–to embrace that “nothingness” that would release me from the tension of striving without a clear end in sight. It was that same nothingness that one finds traces of in Buddhism and Hinduism, and which Jehovah for Jews and Jesus for Christians barely provide an out. I was a scholarship boy from the ghetto trying to use his brains as cudgels to storm the city of success, and a part of me kept wondering: What is the point? Is it really worth it? Love and Fame, those two goals Freud named as the driving forces of the ego, and which the suicidal Berryman chose as the ironic title of his late collection, would they come to me? Or would they sink to nothingness? I eventually reconciled myself to the job of putting forward my best effort, step by step, but I have remained enchanted by narratives that refuse redemption or transcendence, that offer only a bleak irresolution, like this poem.