Stylistic Analysis of John Keats’s “When I have fears”, Iqra Qamar

Iqra Qamar

Department of English Language and Literature

University of the Punjab, Lahore

Stylistic Analysis of John Keats’s “When I have fears”

This paper is based on stylistic analysis of the poem “When I have fears” by John Keats. The stylistic analysis incorporates lexical general and specific level, grammatical categories, figurative language, deviations and phonological sound patterns.  Stylistic analysis would help to derive not only the obvious meanings but the hidden or under lying onesas well.

John Keats was born in 1795 and died in 1821. He belongs to the nineteenth Century Romantic poets. His creative work is marked by poetical sense of beauty in words and sounds, a vivid imagination and strong descriptive power. The sonnet under discussion is quite significant if we bear in mind the fact that Keats was the patient of Tuber Closes. Keats had seen his mother and brother dying with the same disease as it was incurable in those days, so he was aware of his premature approaching death. This fear of death and unconsummated desires made the way of this specific poem.

The poem basically deals with the poet’s fears that before his death he would not be able to jot down all the thoughts he is harboring in his mind. These thoughts are ripened like the grains but the poet laments the fleeting time that would not let him spell out all these brawny thoughts on the paper.

The above mentioned brief details unleash the context of the poem whereas the stylistic analysis of the poem proposes different meanings as it encourages the reader to interpret the piece of writing according to one’s own perspective through the fabric of language woven deliberately by the artist. The choice of diction by the author helps out the reader to study the piece of writing in diverse domains.

Lexical Category:

The major metaphor is drawn from the harvest. The vocabulary used in the poem is specialized as the whole procedure of harvest is used in order to bring forth the course of creative potential.The poet has used descriptive language: he presents an idea and then explains it further as Keats talks about the ‘magic hand of chance’ then describes and substantiates that what he could do if he had this hand and description is quite vivid and convincing. Semantic field of harvest has been utilized; poet compares his creative writing with the harvest using the words like garner, ripened, grainsand teeming (present participle).Harvest is the time of fruition, ready to use and poet’s mature thoughts are also organized and ready to be spelled out on the paper. This fourteen lines poem incorporates nouns, adjectives and adverbs frequently (will be discussed in details later), images given are concise and dense, that depicts the consistency in the thought process of the poet.

Morphological Category:

The poem includes immense number of free and bound morphemes, the table below highlights these morphemes indicating that the number of free morphemes is more than the bound ones:

Free Morphemes:

Hand, Chance, Brain, Love, Cease, Pen, Think, Trace, Wide, Fame, Feel, Fair, Hour, Look, Alone, Stand, Shore, Creature

Bound Morphemes:

Nothingness, Fears, Teeming, Piled, Books, Starred, Cloudy, Symbols, Shadows, Unreflecting, Gleaned

The poem uses subject ‘I’ emphatically; if we enumerate, it is used six times in this short poem. Singling out the subject ‘I’, it can be interpret as human eye as well as the poet is not only an observer but wholly involved in to the subject matter.

When I have fears that I may cease to be

When I behold

WhenI feel, fair creature of an hour

I shall never look upon thee more

I stand alone

This obsession with ‘I’ or self indicates poet’s own conflicts and fears as the title suggests as well. This obsession seems to consume the artist as if we look closely, every time the subject ‘I’ is being used, it is presented in negative shade. The ideas attached by Keats, to this self, are quite pessimistic.

In comparison to this subject ‘I’, if we single out the adjectives, their combination is striking, alluding to the fact that how the positive can be attained from the stream of negatives; the way this dichotomy coexists simultaneously.

  • Teeming brain
  • High piledbooks
  • Rich garners
  • Ripened grains
  • High romance
  • Magic hand
  • Faery power
  • Unreflecting love
  • Wide world
  • Fair creature
  • Cloudy symbols

All these adjectives or images are taken either from the domain of nature or from the world of fantasy, filling colors in the poem: this amalgamation of negatives and positives alludes to the warring inner self of the poet as well. Along with the contrariness, it brings forth the optimistic picture as well.

Nounsused in the poem are given below:

Fear, Books,Charactery, Garner, Symbols, Grain, Face, Brain, Romance, Clouds, Hand, Magic, Chance, Power, Love, Night, Hour, Shore, Fame and Nothingness

Verbs, Adverbs and prepositions used in the poem are given below:


Cease, Think, Behold, Live, Trace, Stand, Sink, Glean, Hold, Look, Feel, Relish


When, Never, Then, More


Upon, In, Of, On, To, Till, Before

Grammatical Category:

The poet uses enjambment as we have expressions with run on line though out the poem. Sentences are simple and towards the end there are a couple of complex sentences as well. Assertive expression has been used by the poet as whatever he presents, he delineates it with remarkable conviction. Use of exclamation is evident in the last lines thus, “of unreflecting love!” that shows the wistfulness of the poet: he has brought forth all his wishes and ends the discourse with wistful tone knowing that all would be far-fetched ideas for him. Coordinating conjunctions (love and fame, and think) have been used by the poet to combine the subjects that are different in nature and through this combination, we get the sense of coherence within the poet’s assertions. The poem starts with dependent clause “When I have fears that I may cease to be” and follows the same terrain frequently. The use of Noun and adjective Phrases is quite evident throughout the poem as teemingbrain, symbols of a high romance, and relish in the faery power.The choice of the poet in terms of language is highly conspicuous as it presents the consistency in thought process.

Figures of Speech:

Simile is used by Keats as he says, “…my teeming brain/ before high piled books in the character/ hold like rich garners” poet presents the mentioned image in order to compare the mind full of thoughts with that of the store full of grains.

Personificationis used in the poem “night’s starred face” giving night the attribute of living being, vivifying the night.

Metaphoris presented thus,Shore of the world”

Hyperboleis used in the poem as the poet presents the image of a store full of grains in order to show the abundance of his ideas.Repetitionhas also been used to emphasize the central idea and highlight the poetic sensibility of the poet. All these elements glorify the verse making it a master piece.

Phonological Effects:

  • Use of Alliteration: Wide world, my pen has gleaned my teeming brain, think that
  • Use of Assonance: Behold upon, of unreflecting love- then on the shore
  • Rhyming Scheme: a b a b, c d c d, e f e f, g g
  • Consonance: Never live, till love, never have, Fair creature, night’s starred

All these sound effects create music and rhythm within the verse.Thus along with the visual images we relish the olfactory effects as well.


Lexical deviation: high-piled, full-ripened

Phonological deviation: ripen’d, starr’d, glean’d(syncope)

Graphological deviation: high- piled books, grain; unreflecting- love hand of chance;

These deviations mark the poem with going away from the standards of writing on the part of the poet yet it makes it conspicuous simultaneously.

After analyzing the poem, stylistically, we can infer that the poet’s fears are related to his own self indicated by the obsession with the subject ‘I”. As far as the subjects are concerned that the poet laments not to pen down can be interpreted through singling out the nouns mentioned by the poet as subject matters: noun in this regard used by the poet are Love, Fame, Romance: if we isolate these nouns we can say that these may be the focal subjects that the poet yearns to write about but cannot do sobecause of the shortage of time. As for the love he mentions,remains unrequited, is that of Fanny’s: Keats’s beloved.

Thus the analysis attempted to bring forth the obvious meanings as well as the hidden ones. The purpose of the analysis is to highlight the way language operates in order to create meanings. The choice of words by the creative writer shows their priorities: the means and resources they choose to communicate their dense thought process. As finality of the subject and meaning is hardto get at: there can be as many interpretations as many readers because language is not static, it evolves as a living object. This specific paper is presented to encourage the future readers to play with the language to observe how language plays with the subject matters and the sensibility of the readers.Readers can add to this paper taking it further in diverse domains.