Views on Death

 

When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be
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.
Mezzo Cammin
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Half of my life is gone, and I have let
   The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
   The aspiration of my youth, to build
   Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
   Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
   But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
   Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
   Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
   A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
   And hear above me on the autumnal blast
   The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

The two poems “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be” by John Keats and “Mezzo Cammin” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow both contemplate the idea of death. However, the poems express different attitudes toward this subject. John Keats’s poems presents the fear that the speaker will not be able to accomplish everything in life he wishes to before dying. The first thing that stood out to me was the rhyme scheme; the iambic pentameter and the way the poem flows presents the poem in a flowery way. What was interesting was the shift in the middle of line 12. Since this is a Shakespearean sonnet, the reader can expect the ending to be surprising–and indeed it was. The first three quatrains the speakers elaborates on his desires of success and love. However, in the last two lines, the speaker belittles these goals as he “stand[s] alone, and think[s],/Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” In the last two lines, the speaker dismisses all of his hopes for literary success and romantic love as futile and not worth thinking about. The poem begins with lists of the things the speaker wishes to accomplish, most notably literary fame and “high romance.”Repetition is prevalent within this poem. For instance, the speaker says “when I have fears”, “when I behold”, and “when I feel” and “before my pen” and “before high-piled books”. This repetition of the word “when” and “before” creates a feeling of expectation; this adds to the overwhelming feeling created by the large list of things that the speaker wishes to accomplish before dying. This poem also includes much imagery, personification, and metaphors. The speaker compares “the night’s starred face” to “symbols of high romance.” The personification of the night makes it seem almost more approachable–as he gives human qualities to the night, the speaker might feel as if he can more easily approach it. However he compares love to the night sky–an expanse so large it seems almost impossible for a human being to undertake, implying that love is something so grand that not even humans can undertake. Many lines in this poem contain imagery, but perhaps the one that stands out to me the most is the line “on the shore of the wide world I stand alone”. Here the reader is able to picture the speaker standing on the line between land and water and share the feeling with the speaker of the world’s overwhelming size and meaning.

The poem “Mezzo Cammin” by Longfellow is told from a different point of view. While the speaker in Keats’s poem seemed to be a young person contemplating the hopes he will not be able to accomplish, the speaker in Longfellow’s poem is an older speaker who is regretfully looking back at his youth. The big idea in this poem is also about death, but this speaker approaches it with a more positive attitude– he looks back regretfully at his wasted youth, but he knows that he cannot change the past and, instead, he looks forward to the things he may accomplish in the life he has left. The rhyme scheme of this poem is different than Keats’s poem, but it still seems to follow iambic pentameter. In this poem the reader also talks about aspirations of his youth–”to build/Some tower of song with lofty parapet”–and contemplates romance–”restless passions that would not be stilled”– just as the speaker in Keats’s poem. Like the poem “When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be,” this poem contains imagery and symbolism. When the speaker expresses “I have let/The years slip from me” the reader can imagine his regret and sorrow, Similarly the city “with smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights” which represent his past is also easily imagined. Although the speaker looks back on his past with regret, he also presents it as an idealized picture; he does not contemplate too much about it, but instead thinks of what the future holds for him. Just as the speaker in Keats’s poem looks at the world from the shore line, the speaker in Longfellow’s poem looks at the world (and his past) from a hill in order to get a full view. The “twilight dim” in which the speaker views the city represents the middle age of the speaker; similarly the “autumnal blast” represents the speaker’s impending death.

A. Introduction

Thesis: While “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be” presents a speaker fearful that death will hinder his ability to successfully fulfill his life goals, “Mezzo Cammin” presents a speaker regretful of his past but hopeful for future goals and experiences he may achieve.

B. The speakers in both poems express the aspirations of their youth

    1. “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be”
      1. Repetition creates expectations
        1. “when” and “before”
      2. Imagery of aspirations
        1. “Garners the full ripened grain”
        2. “Night’s starred face”
    2. “Mezzo Cammin”–Regretful of wasted youth
      1. Imagery of aspirations
        1. “Tower of song with lofty parpet”
      2. Imagery of past
        1. “Smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights”

C. While both speakers accept that death will come, they express their feelings towards it in different ways

    1. “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be” views it as a hinderance
      1. Believes that the world is too big to understand in the time we’re given on Earth
        1. Imagery-“wide world”
    2. “Mezzo Cammin” views the future as hopeful even though he wasted his youth
      1. Knows that he is becoming old
        1. Symbolism “twilight dim” and “autumnal blast”
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One thought on “Views on Death

  1. I found both poems really interesting because although it is about death, you’re right when you say that it kind of isn’t all negative. I feel like the first poet really focuses on life instead, which is ironic.
    In regard to the second poem, I loved your comment ” The personification of the night makes it seem almost more approachable–as he gives human qualities to the night, the speaker might feel as if he can more easily approach it. However he compares love to the night sky–an expanse so large it seems almost impossible for a human being to undertake, implying that love is something so grand that not even humans can undertake.” I really like your interpretation of this part, and I think it is extraordinary for Keats to compare love to the night sky. Both are so indescribable and vast. Overall, I agree with your reading of the poems.

    Like

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