As people near the time of their deaths, they begin to reflect upon the history and events of their own lives. Both John Keats’ “When I have Fears” and Henry Longfellow’s “Mezzo Cammin” reflect upon the speakers’ fears and thoughts of death. However, the conclusions between these two poems end quite differently. Although both reflect upon Death’s grasp, Keats’ displays an appreciation and subtle satisfaction with the wonders of life, while Longfellow morbidly mourns his past inactions and fears what events the future may bring.
The two poems are similar in their corresponding feeling of dread for death. Using diction, Keats reflects on how he “may cease to be” and how he “may never live.” Similarly, Longfellow states that “[h]alf of [his] life is gone” and that the “years slip from” him. Both narrators then continue to lament their fears of not accomplishing everything they had once aspired to do. Keats uses an anaphora of “when” in order to illustrate the various and wide-ranging fears that are related to death.
He also uses the anaphora of “before” in order to further accentuate his concerns of dying before he is able to accomplish various educational yearnings. Similarly, Longfellow also acknowledges his failure in fulfilling “the aspiration of [his] youth” or in building a “tower of song with lofty parapet.” This tower symbolizes a success of literary prowess and legacy the speaker had once hoped to wish for. He realizes that he will not accomplish everything he had once wanted.
Both of these poems are ultimately similar in that they both illustrate men who fear that their lives will be coming to an end.
The two poems differ in that Keats’ poem sheds more appreciation for the life he has led in comparison to the morbid tones that Longfellow’s poem displays. In “When I Have Fears,” Keats uses imagery in order to describe his feelings about love. He uses the images of “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” and “shadows, with the magic hand of chance” to characterize love as something that ultimately occurs by chance. The speaker believes that love is hard to come by and that he is sad that he may not encounter it, since death is just around the corner. The speaker then also talks of “unreflecting love,” thus depicting that the speaker has never experienced real love and is unlikely to ever experience it, because he is so worried about death’s fast approach. However, at the end of “When I have Fears,” the speaker reflects that his goals for literary prowess and love are “nothingness” in comparison to the grand scope of things. There is hope after death, and Keats’ narrator finds solace in this.
Although he has not achieved everything he had wanted, the speaker is still appreciative of what he was able to do. On the other hand, Longfellow’s speaker in “Mezzo Cammin” takes on a much more sorrowful and negative tone. Using diction of “half of my life,” “years slip,” and “not fulfilled,” Longellow shows that the speaker is really dreading and mourning his day to go. It seems that the speaker’s fear of death completely and irresolutely hinders him from accomplishing any of his goals. He is too busy being pessimistic about his life that he is unable to live in the present. He is also unable to dream into the future.
Unlike Keats’ speaker, Longfellow’s speaker is completely stunted in from any possible growth. He is too stuck in the Past and its images of “smoking roof, soft bells, and gleaming lights.” This hazy imagery shows that Longfellow would much rather dwell in the past than to live for the future. Longfellow ultimately only thinks of a past haunted by death and sorrow. Therefore, he cannot perceive any future ahead of him. Keats on the other hand, does indeed recognize a shred of hope and opportunity ahead of him in the future. Unlike Longfellow’s speaker, Keats’ speaker has more appreciation of life and what his life has experienced.
Although both poems echo the subject of death, Keats’ poem sheds more hope and satisfaction, while Longfellow’s is mainly one of gloom and pessimism. These two poems show that mankind should make the most of their lives while it is still possible. If one lives one’s life to the greatest extent of one’s ability, death will not be so hard to cope with. People should never live in the past. They must move into the future and dream into whatever future is left.