So, no one really loves to think of death, but we all have questions. What happens after? What will I miss most? Is it better or worse to be dead than alive?
A number of poems this week deal with these questions, chief among them being John Keats’ “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be.” This sonnet has many standard qualities of an elegy, save for the fact that it is about the poet himself. It begins with the title: “When I have fears that I may cease to be/ Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,/ Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,” Here, the speaker has brought us into his world a bit; he is a poet who fears his death, and uses writing to process (or at least distract) his thoughts and feelings on the matter. I hesitate to call this section a part of the dirge, since it isn’t lamenting so much as dreading, but it does reveal some of his character.
The real lamentation begins towards the middle of the poem, when he reflects upon the night sky:
“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,”
Now this is most definitely the lament. Here, he is beginning to grieve the parts of life that he will leave behind (particularly the otherworldly beauty of the night sky). Now, the poem does leave out the praise for the dead, but being that it is about the poet himself, it is been omitted. Perhaps the speaker didn’t see himself or his character as particularly important, but rather it was the world, and the experiences within it, as more fulfilling. Next is the apotheosis, which begins at the “turn” of the sonnet. He imagines himself then “…on the shore/Of the wide world I stand alone, and think/Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.” The afterlife he imagines is not a particularly happy one, since he sees himself as just beyond the boundaries of the world, standing and thinking alone for all eternity.
Again, this is a deviation from the traditional form, since elegies usually portray the dead as in a better place. Rather, the speaker sees himself as inhabiting what I would think is a hellish existence for a poet. Like a painter deprived of brushes, he is torn from the world and the inspiration he finds in it, yet he can still form thoughts and has a consciousness. So, unlike a traditional elegy, he is using the poem not to comfort himself, but as a way to express his own fears and dread of death.