Literary FormsWhen I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be is a sonnet—a fourteen-line poem with a set structure and rhyme scheme. The sonnet form gives the poet an opportunity to trace a single thought to a climactic moment in which the speaker presents a changed perspective, realization, or surprising insight.
InspirationsThe painting of Grecian urns can be traced back to the Greekcity of Corinth in the seventh century B.C. There, painters began to cover vases with black silhouetted shapes, often the forms of animals. As the style spread to Athens, it developed to include narrative scenes based on Greek mythology.
The look of an Athenian vase—black figures on a red clay background—became famous. In Keats’s day, archeological excavations in the Mediterranean region produced many examples of the form, creating interest throughout Europe in all things classical. His poem Ode on a Grecian Urn may have been inspired by just such an urn. From his comments in a letter to his friend J.H. Reynolds, Keats seems to have been inspired to write To Autumn by his viewing a stubble field, or a reaped field in which only the lower parts of the wheat stalks remain. “I never liked stubble fields so much as now—Aye, better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
Sound AdviceKeats had a sound philosophy about learning from failure. He has said, “Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall ever afterwards carefully avoid.” On the critical failure of his poem Endymion, Keats said, “In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.—I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.”
Keats also had clear views on poetry. In a letter to John Taylor, Keats remarked, “Poetry should please by a fine excess and not by singularity. It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance. ... If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”
Literary analysis 1: ode
An ode is an exalted, complex lyric poem that develops a single, dignified theme. Typically, odes have a serious tone and appeal to both the imagination and the intellect. Many commemorate events or praise people or the beauty of nature. Though the ode had been around since ancient times, the romantic poets revived it and gave it new life. Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, To Autumn, and “Ode to a Nightingale are examples of odes.
Literary analysis 2: imagery
Keats’s poetry is known for being full of sounds, sights, smells, and warmth. He achieves these sensations through imagery, words and phrases that appeal to one or more of the five senses and create sensory experiences for the reader. Sometimes, a poet will create imagery in which one sensation is described in terms of another; this technique is called synesthesia. For example, in Ode on a Grecian Urn, the phrase “Heard melodies are sweet” describes a sound in terms of a taste. As you read these poems, note the type of imagery Keats uses to vividly convey his ideas to the reader.
Reading skill: paraphrase
Keats’s poetry can be challenging to read because of the inverted syntax—sentence structure that places the verb before the subject. Poets of his era often inverted word order to meet the demands of poetic meter and rhyme. To help you understand the complex phrasing and sentence structures within the poems, paraphrase, or restate in your own words, difficult or confusing passages. As you read the poems, use a chart like the one shown to record your paraphrases.