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Romantic poetry deals with many subjects, be it death, love, nature or various other topics. No matter the subject, intuition, imagination and feeling play a major part. As Baudelaire once said, "Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling." This is true of the works of Keats and Longfellow, two prominent Romantic poets. Keats' "When I Have Fears" and Longfellow's "Mezzo Cammin" both address similar issues of death, love, time, and feelings of separation. However, the way they are presented differs.
Diction is one of the poetic devices that tips us off to the motives behind each poem. Note that Longfellow mentions death by name and even personifies it (as indicated by the capitilisation of the "D"). Keats, on the other hand, never says the word "death", though it is clearly implied, making the fear seem ever more strengthened. So strengthened, that mere utterance of the word is too unbearable to endure. This may be due to the possibility that at the time of publication, Keats may have already become afflicted with the consumption that took his life three years later. Due to the stigma attached with consumption at that time, it's only natural that Keats be afraid to talk about it directly. Keats' choice to repeat the word "never" throughout the poem and his use of the word "nothingness" in the last line seem to cement the absolution of death in his mind, his lament for the things he'll "never" get to experience such as love and fame and his being stripped of the thing he most enjoys, writing.
Symbolism and metaphor also play major parts in the structure of the poems. Both Keats and Longfellow make reference to the night and the haze that comes with it. Keats does so in a manner referring to his uncertain future. Whereas, Longfellow uses it in reference to a wasted, fading past. In each case, it affects a feeling of uncertainty and despair. The two poems also share an element of separation towards the end. In Longfellow's instance, the separation is implied by the lines "Though, half way up the hill, I see the Past lying beneath me with its sounds and lights." Here he uses the climbing of a hill as a metaphor for life and the city in the distance as a metaphor for the past, visible but inaccessible. Keats is not so discreet. He clearly uses the word "alone". He compares the world to the seashore indicating the vastness and opportunity presented by the prospect of life. As he stands on the "shore" of the world, his mind is at work. Until he concludes that love and fame don't matter. Writing, however, is not thrown to the winds, so to speak. It's the one thing he seems to hold on to, the thing he won't let go.
Love and fame are also addressed in the two poems. For Longfellow, love has come and gone, a thing attached to his past. For Keats, it is a thing to come. A wondrous and magical prospect that, by the end of the poem, seemingly amounts to nothing. Longfellow's view of love differs from that of Keats. To Longfellow, love is an indefinite and all-consuming entity, something that halts progress. On the subject of fame, both poets ultimately feel a certain disillusion to fame. Longfellow is once again referencing the past. This time alluding to his aspirations as a young man. Keats concludes that fame, like love, is meaningless in the end.
These two poems are prime examples of how two poems on the same topic and from the same movement paint vastly different pictures. They show how two men faced with the closeness of death can react in two different but oddly similar ways. They say perception is based on experience. This statement holds true here. Keats, being young, has had a smaller array of experiences than the older Longfellow (older, here referencing age at the time of writing rather than in actual respect to age comparison as Longfellow was born twelve years after Keats). Keats has neither experienced love nor true fame. Both of which Longfellow had experienced by the time he composed his poem. However, facing death at a young age has offered Keats an alternate angle to that of Longfellow, who seems to be facing a sort of "mid-life crisis". Interestingly, Keats did find love a year after publishing his poem. But, in the the end, had to call off the engagement due to his illness. Ironically, he didn't find widespread fame until after his death. All in all, these two poems accurately convey the situations Keats and Longfellow found themselves in at the time of publication via cleverly placed words and symbols.
Full Title: When I Have Fears of Mezzo Cammin: A comparitive essay of Keats and Longfellow

This is an essay I wrote for AP Lit. It compares "When I Have Fears"by John Keats and "Mezzo Cammin by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
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August 31, 2010
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