When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be 

by John Keats

When I have fears that I may cease to be
__Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
__Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred 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.


Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
__My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
__One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
__But being too happy in thine happiness,–
____That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
______In some melodious plot
__Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
____Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
__Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
__Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
__Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
____With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
______And purple-stained mouth;
__That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
____And with thee fade into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
__What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
__Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few sad, last gray hairs,
__Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
____Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
______And leaden-eyed despairs,
__Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
____Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
__Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
__Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
__And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
____Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
______But here there is no light,
__Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
____Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
__Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
__Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
__White hawthorn, and pastoral eglantine;
____Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
______and mid-May’s eldest child,
__The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
____The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
__I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
__To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
__To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
____While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
______In such an ecstasy!
__Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
____To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
__No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
__In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
__Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
____She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
______The same that oft-times hath
__Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
____Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
__To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
__As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
__Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
____Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
______In the next valley-glades:
__Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
____Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?



Daniel Leach’s essay on The Chained Muse may be accessed here.


NOTE TO READERS: If you enjoyed this poem or other content, please consider making a donation to the Society of Classical Poets.

The Society of Classical Poets does not endorse any views expressed in individual poems or comments.


5 Responses

  1. Sathyanarayana

    “Thou wast not born for death, immortal BARD!…”

    Salutations to Keats.

  2. Beau Ecs Wilder

    1. Despite disagreements one may have with its opinions, Mr. Leach’s essay on Keats is one of the more profound pieces to be found @ SCP. Its value is in its serious tone and its large vision.

    2. Keats is an important poet to go through, and each writer of English poetry can receive from Keats’ work, an impetus and a direction for his or her own work, particularly the Odes.

    3. Here is one example of how Keats has informed a work of Mr. Leach:

    The Leaves of Summer
    by Daniel Leach

    The leaves of summer never were so fair
    As now, by dying season’s light they’re kissed,
    September’s melancholy golden mist
    Descends like dreams so richly everywhere,
    That I forget that I, like they, must die.
    And drinking in, like mellow wine, the day,
    Its glorious moment ripe, will fade away
    Upon the morrow, and with them will lie
    In brown and withered peace upon the ground.
    But now how lustily their colors cling,
    And how enchanting is their rustling sound,
    As to the fading evening sky they sing!
    My spirit is with theirs forever bound,
    Forever for one moment lingering.

    4. There are so many things I like about Keats Odes, though always remembering they are a young man’s poems. I like his occasional classic thoughts, his rare, profound trimetres in the above poem, his avoidance of trochaic words at the ends of his lines, his Shakespearean diction, his epic adumbrations, etc. Who knows what the maturer Keats might not have attained had he lived longer? I think Keats’ Odes are the best odes in our language; even if they do not rise to the levels of either Pindar’s or Horace’s Odes.

    5. My main problem with Keats is similar, if not as pronounced, to that which he felt for Milton’s powerful language: “life to him would be death to me”.

    from “Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair”
    by John Keats

    “Chief of organic Numbers!
    Old Scholar of the Spheres!
    Thy spirit never slumbers
    but rolls about our ears
    For ever and for ever.
    O, what a mad endeavour
    Worketh he,
    Who, to thy sacred and ennobled hearse,
    Would offer burnt sacrifice of verse
    And Melody…

    For many years my offerings must be hush’d:
    When I do speak I’ll think upon this hour,
    Because I feel my forehead hot and flush’d,
    Even at the simplest vassal of thy Power,—
    A lock of thy bright hair!
    Sudden it came,
    And I was startled when I heard thy name
    Coupled so unaware—
    Yet, at the moment, temperate was my blood:
    Methought I had beheld it from the flood.”

  3. Cal Wes Ubideer

    Here is a poem of several years ago that was influenced by John Keats.

    Ode on an Ocean Urb, or 48 Hours in LA
    for Michael Dana Gioia

    Touch down in LAX, an hour on the tarmac lanes,
    o, then one tries to flee from all the people and the planes.
    At last one finds escape, an empty, giant corridor,
    of walls and ceiling, windowless, and unappealing floor.
    Outbound one waits for transportation, pick-up at the curb;
    and so begins one’s journey in a built-up ocean urb.
    One leaves behind the flying saucer seated on four legs,
    air traffic’s towering control, and egg-white, lamp-light pegs.
    One drops one’s baggage in the trunk and gets into the car,
    and takes off for the highway, like a darting, shooting star.

    One merges on to 105, and heads into the sun;
    one speeds upon the concrete lanes along with old and young.
    One travels eastward on the slightly curving, freeway’s range,
    until one then arrives at the 110 stack-interchange.
    Next one goes northward past the campuses of USC
    and enters downtown LA Metro in crazed ecstasy,
    skyscrapers rising high above the palms along the way,
    the banks, hotels and business plazas, shiny, steely-gray,
    that soar above the mind, names neatly posted at their tops,
    before the concrete dance of the four-leveled swirling waltz.

    One heads up 101 amidst the traffic curbed and curled,
    bypassing luckily the busiest in all the World;
    past Capital’s turntable stack and HOLLYWOOD’s signed cast,
    north by northwest, one drives across bland Cahuenga Pass.
    One ends up at the Universal City for a night,
    but cannot see the starry skies for all the neon light.
    One listens to the tales of one century ago,
    the founding of the studios, the manic, frantic flow.
    There’s no time for th’ Observatory’s cosmic castle keep,
    and after over twenty stories one falls fast asleep.

    At dawn, one rises to the warming, waking and alive,
    a breakfast ice, a nice repast, off to Mulholland Drive;
    house after house precariously situated there,
    along the rising, narrow, winding, road-dense laissez faire.
    One motors past the Bowl to the beknighted Boulevard,
    and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, gauche, hideous and hard,
    crowds gawking at the handprints, footprints, and the signatures
    of motion-picture personalities across the years;
    the Walk of Fame of stars and names, along the dirty streets,
    one looks in vain to find some peace or satisfying sweets.

    One leaves behind Egyptian-Movie-Palace, lavish smarm,
    and heads off to West Hollywood down Sunset’s funny farm.
    One comes to the Rodeo Drive and Beverly-Hills stores,
    the gaudy ostentation and the haughty semaphores.
    The mansions in the hills are filled with fancy gardeners,
    who drive Mercedes past the shade trees and the carpenters,
    where walls and hedges mark the boundaries of the estates,
    and nouveau riche create neat nests behind wrought-iron gates.
    O, mindless-whimsy, stylistical illiteratates
    create faux French and Spanish flourishes on cigarettes.

    From there it isn’t far off to the Avenue of Stars,
    Fox Studios, and Century’s skyscrapered, business czars;
    past Culver City’s plastic-rainbowed Sony Studios,
    one travels by Marina-Del-Rey’s gleaming, harboured boats,
    and north to thin canals of Venice in America,
    wall-tattooed murals, beach, and whacky circus-like boardwalk.
    Then off to Santa Monica, a pseudo South-of-France,
    wood Pier with ferris wheel, carousel and seaside dance.
    Where are the birds? Have they all gone up north to Oregon,
    like seagulls on the dismal, gray-sand coasts of Washington?

    One leaves behind the ocean and takes off for 405,
    and if one stops, it’s at the Getty where one will arrive.
    From parking, one rides on the hovertrain funicular
    to art and architextures, if not too particular.
    One climbs Sepulveda to 101 past twisted oaks,
    dry chaparral, and alium’s white lollipopping pokes.
    Then east to Burbank, Disney, Warner Brothers, NBC;
    there’s Mickey-Mouse ears on the fence posts, dwarves upon the eaves.
    Aft touring Universal, Psycho, Jaws, and City Walk,
    one’s lying down to rest, shoes off, not far from Forest Lawn.

    Wake up in Universal City, time to pack one’s bags,
    a salsa omlette, waffle, juice, and coffee—human gas.
    It’s time to flee the people and the places one has seen.
    Morning commute, conjestion thick: Where is the golden mean?
    Down Cahuenga Boulevard, down Vine and Rosmore Ave,
    on to La Brea, missing Tar Pits, and the traffic’s laugh.
    One goes on to La Cienega’s swamp of vehicles,
    and cuts to La Tijera’s ditch past oil derrick culls.
    One gets to LAX and gridlock, concrete berms and all;
    and hides one’s patience as one inches to one’s terminal.

    • David

      Dear Cal and Beau,

      Firstly, on the question of Keats, I believe the point is that what Keats achieved with the Odes, even if at a tender age, says something significant about the nature of the human mind. The discoveries Keats made, which then took the form of the Odes, were a result of his wrestling with the ultimate paradoxes of human mortality and the nature of human creativity.

      There is an inherent tension in the fact that we are born mortal, but by virtue of the rigorous development of our creative faculties, something like an immortal piece of art can be created, whose truth remains unchanged regardless of time – it is timeless.

      The fact that human beings can act on such a level is truly exciting. And I feel that Keats experienced precisely this kind of excitement, the idea that all of human history is one great dialogue, and that each one of us, as mortals, can situate ourselves within that dialogue and contribute something to it. We can all therefore attain a level of immortality if we choose to confront these kinds of paradoxes.

      The question is will we?

      “The voice I hear this passing night was heard
      “In ancient days by emperor and clown.”

      I believe when that sinks in, like it did with Keats, one discovers true inspiration. The Romantics generally avoided these kinds of ideas, though there are exceptions with things like Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimation of Immortality.”

      I guess I would end with a question: what if more people, even from a young age like Keats, would have the opportunity to wrestle with the kinds of paradoxes Keats develops in his Odes? What kind of genius would that unleash?

      Leach’s essay, especially the full version linked at the bottom of the post, is truly remarkable in this respect.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.