When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be
Herman Melville read and studied the poetry of the great romantics. And so he likely had read, at least once, John Keats’s sonnet, “When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be.”
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And feel 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.
Compare Keats’s sonnet with these lines of verse that conclude Melville’s prose-and-verse piece, “Rip Van Winkle’s Lilac.” Keats, young; Melville, elderly; both writing in verse to express their hope for posthumous literary fame and glory. Neither knew wide-spread fame while alive, but because of the few friends and family who did understand and appreciate their work, they each flourished creatively.
That neighbors, unconcerned before
When bloomed the tree by lowly door,
Craved now one little slip to train;
Neighbor from neighbor begged again.
On every hand stem shot from slip,
Till, that region now is dowered
Like the first Paradise embowered,
Thanks to poor, good-for-nothing Rip!
Some think those parts should bear his name;
But, no, — the blossoms take the fame.
Slant finger-posts by horsemen scanned
Point the green miles–To Lilac Land.
Go ride-there down one charmful lane,
O reader mine, when June’s at best,
A dream of Rip shall slack the rein,
For there his heart flowers out confessed.
And there you’ll say,–O, hard ones, truce!
See, where man finds in man no use,
Boon Nature finds one–Heaven be blest!