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Negative Capablity
John Keats

Negative Capablity
  • The John Keats Memorial Volume, Issued b... (by )
  • The Complete Poetical Works and Letters ... (by )
  • John Keats : Leben und Werke. (by )
  • Poems : Poetry of John Keats (by )
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Poet John Keats coined the enduring theory “negative capability” in a short shrug of a letter to his brothers: 

… it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. (The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, p. 277)
At its core, negative capability is much more than an aesthetic for writing. It is a way of reaching conceptual reality behind the language that frames our understanding; a way of experiencing moments with less concrete knowledge that skew the point. This is similar to Zen Buddhism’s concept of satori, where insights arrive only after one’s passive rendering of the surroundings.

With this last line, he might also say that understanding follows beauty. This creates a two-part revelation: the first is an immediate and visceral appreciation for the poem, which causes the work to linger in the reader’s mind and blossom much later through an unconscious effort. But the beauty part is most important to negative capability, because it creates an unspoken trust between reader and author.
Keats was more specific about negative capability’s application to poetry in another letter:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway, crying out, Admire me, I am a violet!  (
The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, p. 286)

It is a technique much more subtle than many of the forceful, explanatory styles used at the time, which often asserted a dominant point of view or philosophy rather than allowing the reader to make connections to the poem through inexplicable doorways. Writers today say “show, don’t tell.”

For examples of John Keats’ negative capability at work, check out The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, and the John Keats Memorial Volume.

By Thad Higa

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