When I have fears

I have over the last year or so frequently relaxed in a meditative trance while listening to soft-spoken readings of poetry.  Set against moody electronic music, the softly but precisely enunciated words penetrate to unknown chambers of the mind. Who this poet trance reader is, I do not know, but I appreciate her readings, stripped of any theatrical reading of the kind famous actors sometimes make.

The readings I listen to most are those of Keats, Dickinson, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, and a reading from Rilke’s letters of advice to a young poet. But my favourite is the recording of Keats’ poems:  When I have fears that I may cease to be; To a Nightingale; Ode on A Grecian Urn; To Autumn; This living hand, warm and capable.

I did not know the poem, “When I have fears”, before I discovered it, read in this way. I had been searching for quality readings of poems, as a way to aid memorisation and to fill the well with things of beauty. Instead of showing me the way to famous actors rendering well known poems with their robust personalities, the world wide web pointed me to this anonymous lyricist of trance, who showed modestly how beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The poem itself echoes in my mind. Here it is, before my thoughts:

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.

What writer of a certain sensibility has not feared they may never live to trace the shadows of the visions that come without fanfare, without announcement, yet fatefully deciding the inner life?

These fears are not resolved in the poem; and instead they are endured. The poet patiently waits out these fears, with their origins in the mysterious illusions of fame and love. He stands alone on the shore of the wide world, thinks, and waits for his fears to subside and for his dreamt illusions – the high-piled books of literary fame, the faery power of unreflecting love – to sink beneath the lapping waves. He is left alone to write, and to make things of beauty from this world, with no expectation of admiration, applause or recognition. These fears hold a cruel paradox – they are fears of not having things that cannot be. Beautiful, evocative, satisfying, alluring illusions. But these illusions also crush words of truth under the heavy weight of impossibility – huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.

In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it has, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

(From Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”)


Keats’ own inscription for his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

My inscription: “Here lies one whose name was writ on burning paper.”

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