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As a terminally ill being, John Keats' outlook on life was obviously not of optimism. Because of his considerably short life span, Keats, for the most part, spent his life dreaming and wishing to experience things and opportunities, rather than actually experiencing them. Furthermore, as an avid poet, Keats had a strong desire to share his thoughts and ideas on the many experiences of life through his writing as much as possible. However, with such limited time, Keats was afraid that he would never have the chance to convey all that he wished to express from his mind through his poetry. As a result, much of Keats' poems illustrated his melancholy and hopelessness for his future, but at the same time his long-pursued ambitions and desire to witness more in his short-termed life. In two of perhaps his most famous sonnets, When I have fears that I may cease to be and Bright Star, Would I were as stedfast as thou art, Keats captures these very emotions effectively by combining sensual, vivid imagery and symbolic, meaningful metaphors.
From the title and first line of Keats' sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be, it is already evident that Keats' words concern the topic of death and his anxiety towards it. He "fears that [he] may cease to be" -- that is, to be afraid of no longer existing, or dying. Thus, from just the first line of his sonnet, Keats brings in the theme of morbidity.
Moving onto the next line, Keats says "Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain, / Before high-piled books, in charactery, / Hold like rich garners" (Keats 2-4). Here, Keats is trying to say that he is afraid of "[ceasing] to be", or dying, before he has the opportunity to write down all the other ideas and thoughts from his mind and create piles of books filled with his poetry. Beginning from the fifth line, he exclaims: "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." (Keats 5-8) Keats is essentially saying that when he looks into the starry night sky filled with clouds, he fears that he may die before he is ever able to "trace their shadows with the magic hand of chance" - in other words, write poetry about their beautiful images. It is important to note, however, that it may also be interpreted another way. Instead of perceiving it as a literal concept, it may also be perceived as a far more abstract concept. The night sky and "huge cloudy symbols of a high romance" may represent the universe or the heavens, rather than just an earthly image. Thus, Keats could also be trying to say that he may never live long enough to find an explanation or meaning of the universe. His life is decided by "the magic hand of chance", or, in this case, fate. If he is to die early, he knows that he will not be able to determine an explanation for the heavens and the universe, or "trace their shadows." For the rest of the sonnet, Keats explains how he shall never experience an "unreflecting love" of "faery power." Since fairies have the power of immortality, Keats explains that he can never experience an eternal kind of love that is unreflecting. Because Keats knows his life will be short, the love he knows is only a "fair creature of an hour" - transient and limited by time. The fact that he mentions standing on the shore alone emphasizes the solitude and sorrow he feels. Thus, because he knows that his death is imminent, the ideas of love and fame reach a point where they are no longer of importance; they become "nothingness."
Bright Star, Would I were steadfast as thou art is similar to When I have fears that I may cease to be in that it also expresses a strong desire driven by the fact that Keats knows of his short-termed life. Based on the title and first line, it is clear that Keats establishes the star as the main focus of the sonnet. In addition, it is also noteworthy to mention that Keats envies the star, as he says "would I were as steadfast as thou art", for the star, unlike him, is unchanging and fixed in one place. Thus, Keats wishes that he could be as eternal as the star, "watching, with eternal lids apart" the "moving waters" and "soft fallen mask[s] of snow upon the mountains and moors." However, Keats comes into a conflict with his desires. Although he yearns to be "still unchangeable" and eternal, he does not want to be in "lone splendor." He longs to be "Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast, / To feel for ever its soft fall and swell" (Keats 10-11). In other words, Keats wishes to be with his love, and be able to physically feel his lover's body, while being eternal. This, unfortunately, is impossible and would create a paradox. In order to love and be able to feel such love, one would have to be human, which is not eternal like the star is. He cannot be eternally human, for humans will eventually perish. Keats realizes that his only other option would be to "swoon to death." In other words, he would die during the time he is experiencing his purest happiness in love.
Keats most likely died unsatisfied with what he had experienced and written down in his poetry. Because he knew that he was not going to live quite long, it only made his desires to witness more in things life and express his ideas and thoughts on them even greater. Thus, he aspired more and more the closer he drew to his death, but his death was unfortunately too close to fulfill all of his goals. However, perhaps it is for that very reason which makes Keats' poetry so vivid and emotional: his undying desires and wishes, driven by the anticipation of his imminent death.