Keats and ‘Negative Capability’

by Lucy Tutton
It was in December 1817, in a letter to his brothers, that we see John Keats first use the term Negative Capability. He set out what he believed was necessary to become what he called a “Man of Achievement” or one who is “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries and doubts without any irritable reaching after fact or reason.” As the famous couplet from Ode on a Grecian Urn reads: “Beauty is truth and truth beauty – That is all/ ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

We can see this sentiment reflected in his letters. In 1817, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, he wrote that “what the Imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” This letter was written just one month before the Negative Capability letter, and we can see Keats setting out the ground work for what would become the final concept. He stated that whatever a person perceived as beautiful must be the truth, whether it be in art or poetry or music. A person must be able to accept whatever they perceive as true without questioning how or why; this is the only way they can become a ‘Man of Achievement.’ Keats spent much of his, albeit short, career striving to become one such man. In the following post I will be discussing the origins of Negative Capability, how Keats developed it as his circumstances changed, and also whether or not Keats ever achieved his goal of becoming ‘negatively capable’.

First of all, I would like to point out the irony of studying Negative Capability, a subject which requires the reader to be content with “half-knowledge”; an irony that Keats himself was aware of during his constant quest to achieve it. He longed for “a life of Sensations, rather than thoughts” but found himself unable to be happy with “half-knowledge”. He was a thinker, but longed to be among the dreamers of the world.  In addition, I do not believe that Keats ever saw himself as a “Man of Achievement,” nor did he consider himself to be a master of Negative Capability. He was ambitious, yes, but incredibly hard on himself.

We need only look at his self-written epitaph to get an idea of how the young poet saw himself. He died at the age of 25, his gravestone bearing the words Here lies one whose name was writ in water. His name being “writ in water” gives the impression that he believed his words would fade and evaporate. It is understandable, given his poor health and the deterioration of his mental state, that his epitaph reads in such a way, however, we can see these uncertainties and doubts even in his earlier poetry. Consider the sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be. It shows perfectly both Keats’ ambition and his fears should he not survive to reach his goals. Keats knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, just not how to get there. Especially towards the end of his life, after watching his mother and brother die of consumption, the same disease which would eventually claim his own life, Keats became more and more disillusioned with his original concept of Negative Capability. He didn’t give up on it completely, however, he changed and twisted it in order to create a goal that he considered to be reachable.

In a letter he wrote to close friend, Benjamin Bailey, Keats’ insecurities and doubts at his own ability to achieve Negative Capability become clear:

I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on sensation partly on thought.

He credits Bailey, stating that his is one of these minds. However, it would appear that Keats himself saw “existing partly on sensation partly on thought” as an easier target than Negative Capability. In a letter written to Richard Woodhouse in October 1818, Keats talks about the “Chamelion poet,” or one who possesses such “egotistical sublime” that he is “without self, without character”. Keats wrote that “what shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the Chamelion poet.” This is because the “Chamelion poet”, as Keats sees him, does not have any consideration for whether or not his argument is valid, or if there is any rational reasoning behind it. This idea of the “Chamelion poet” can be seen to have similarities with Negative Capability. To be negatively capable, a person must be able to completely disregard the need for rational explanations, in the same way that the “Chamelion poet” disregards logic. Nearly a year after Keats wrote this letter, he is still toying with the idea of a “life of Sensations”, but he is still struggling to achieve it.

It seems that Keats’ own self-doubt is what truly prevented him from becoming completely negatively capable.

I know nothing I have read nothing and I mean to follow Solomon’s directions of ‘get Wisdom- get understanding’ – I find cavalier days are gone by. I find that I can have no enjoyment in the World but continual drinking of Knowledge – I find there is no worthy pursuit but the idea of doing some good for the world…there is but one way for me – the road lies th[r]ough application of study and thought.

This statement creates something of a paradox for Keats. He intended to become a master of Negative Capability, a real “Man of Achievement”, and yet the only way he could do so was through the acquisition of knowledge. In 1819, Keats wrote that “nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced” and yet he denied himself the opportunity to travel because he believed he hadn’t read enough, nor did he know enough. He denied himself life experience because he felt that his true calling lay in education and knowledge. Keats was young, ambitious and unforgivably hard on himself. It seems that he never truly talks himself out of his struggle between his need for knowledge and his determination to become negatively capable.

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that Keats ultimately compromised in his need for Negative Capability, reaching instead for a sort of happy medium between intellect and imagination. “I was never afraid of failure,” he wrote, “for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.” It is not surprising that this move away from his original musings on Negative Capability correlated with his deterioration in health. In 1820, in a letter to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, he wrote:

‘If I should die,’ I said to myself, ‘I have left no immortal words behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory – but I have loved the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had the time I would have made myself remembered.’

It would appear that in order to become “among the greatest” before he died, Keats decided to aim for something he perceived to be more realistic. He died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis, a disease that he most likely contracted from his younger brother whilst he was attempting to nurse him to health. His symptoms first appeared in 1820, and having a medical background and seeing both his mother and his brother die of the disease it seems likely that he would have known what was going to happen. Having to face his own mortality at such a young age led him to question his life, his achievements (or, as he saw it, the lack thereof), and his eventual demise.

Keats was fully aware of his contradictions and his limitations, or at least the ones that he perceived himself to have. In the letters grouped between the dates of 14th February – 3rd May 1819, all of which are addressed to ‘The George Keatses’ he wrote about the “disinterestedness of Mind”, presumably the ability to separate intellect and the imagination, remaining only with what the imagination alone perceived to be the truth. He stated “I perceive how far I am from any standard of disinterestedness.” It is clear that Keats struggled to separate his need for thought and knowledge from his perception of the truth, thus preventing himself from becoming a “Man of Achievement.” He was stuck in a cruel cycle; he constantly questioned how he could become one of these men, and in doing so he drove himself further away from his goal. He believed so fervently in the importance of Beauty and Truth, however, he could find no other way of coming by it himself other than through education and learning, which seems to oppose a person’s ability to be negatively capable.

I am three and twenty, with little knowle[d]ge and middling intellect. It is true that in the height of enthusiasm I have been cheated into some fine passages; but that is not the thing.

We can see clearly Keats’ inability to view himself as anything other than mediocre, despite having achieved so much for a man who was so young. Furthermore, in a letter to Benjamin Bailey composed in 1819, he puts the “fine writer” in second place next to the “human friend Philosopher”. We can see that Keats was truly torn between his quest for truth and his quest for knowledge.

In his essay entitled ‘Was Negative Capability Enough for Keats?’, critic R.T. Davis concludes that, for Keats, Negative Capability was “temporarily convenient”, stating that by the end of his career “he was impelled by his experience both of living and writing to reach after that fact and reason which he had once said were small considerations for a great poet.” This much is true; with his change in health and circumstance, the young Keats did find himself reaching after “that fact and reason”, desperately trying to understand why his life had turned out in the way it had. However, I would not agree with Davis in stating that Negative Capability was just “temporarily convenient” for the young poet; this much is obvious from reviewing his letters. In February 1819, in a letter to George and Georgiana, he wrote:

I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of…staring at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness – without knowing the bearing of any one assertion, of any one opinion –

He consistently aimed for Negative Capability, referring to it throughout his letters, or at least to something similar. We are fortunate that his letters are easily available to read alongside his poetry; it gives us a unique opportunity to see the, often complicated, thought processes behind his work. His quest for beauty never ceased, just his way of finding it. Faced with his brother’s mortality, followed swiftly by his own, he wanted only to be remembered as a great poet. Ideally the way he would have become one was through Negative Capability, yet he doubted his own abilities in achieving the concept that he had created. Instead he found a medium; one who can exist “partly on sensation, partly on thought.” It was less that Negative Capability “was not enough for Keats”, it was that Keats could not picture himself, a man of “middling intellect” achieving it; therefore he could not.

Lucy Tutton graduated in July 2014 with a degree in EnglishLucy T Literature from the University of Birmingham, during which time she studied Shakespeare, Victorian Literature and Metaphysical Poetry. She wrote her final year Research Project on the subject of Keatsian Negative Capability.
She currently works as an Academic Coach in English Literature and Language. She will return to University in September 2015 to begin a Masters degree in Literature and Culture where she intends to undertake modules in Victorian, Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite Literature.