Negative Capability

cropped-img_0039-1.jpgEven the greatest musicians set theory aside when they listen to beautiful songs. In fact, if they tried to analyze every measure and note, the spell would be broken. When John Keats wrote about Negative Capability, he meant the gift of appreciating beauty without understanding it. The tortured soul who has to know the ‘why’ of every detail is bound for unhappiness.

Keats said:

Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & 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.

Part of our mystery – the image of God within us, is our capacity for wonder. Psalm 42 says “deep calls unto deep” and we understand that when our appreciation for beauty exceeds both word and logic. When our hearts spark at the revelation of God’s glory, our response is like a lion’s cub, practicing his roar. The day for us to understand what that’s really for is still ahead.


D I G  D E E P E R

John Keats and Negative Capability

cropped-61EC899B-C5BD-427F-AABB-7A455AD5F509-e1568285129679The poetry and letters of John Keats show a brilliant mind working to maintain the bond between beauty and nature early in that century. Trained for a career in medicine and intuitively drawn to the secular skepticism that was in the cultural air of his day, Keats had little interest in Christian thought and practice per se. Yet he retained a passionate concern for the questions of truth that had occupied Christian thought for centuries and intuitively understood the debate about beauty in his own day. Specifically, like Baumgarten and Kant, he had a strong spatial sense of beauty and believed it might offer a retreat from the world of mortal toil and sorrow. The opening lines of his long poem, Endymion, capture this sense well:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

If the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, may not beauty offer those who bear the burdens of consciousness a place to lay their heads?

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats offered one of his most extensive—and certainly most well known—poetic treatments of beauty and belief. This is the first poem by Keats that I remember having read. I came upon it in high-school English during my senior year, and I came to it fresh from a two-year struggle over the death of my brother and the division of my family. Because I was seeking anything that offered beauty, order and the promise of lastingness, the ode tapped into some of the deepest wellsprings of my heart. I was drawn to its portrayal of art’s capacity to capture and preserve beauty, and the Spirit of God began to lead me to wonder whether there could be a power or person even greater than this “cold pastoral.”

The poem opens with a tribute to the “still unravish’d bride of quietness,” the “foster-child of silence and slow time” that is the urn.22 After posing a series of questions—“What men or gods are these? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What wild ecstasy?”—it unfolds as a meditation on human mutability and historical process. Everything depicted in the second stanza fades or fails in the course of ordinary experience, but in the extraordinary timeless world of the urn, these things endure. Here the “fair youth’s” song never ends, and the trees never stand bare. The bold lover may never win his beloved, but “do not grieve,” the speaker instructs him, for “she cannot fade” and “for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

Walter Jackson Bate notes that at this point the poem’s sympathies begin “to desert the urn for the painful world of process, of which the urn is oblivious.”23 The urn may preserve mutable experience, but it always will remain a “cold Pastoral.” There is a limit to the powers of preservation, for in the words of one of Keats’s greatest poetic descendants, William Butler Yeats, “the mountain grass / Cannot but keep the form / Where the mountain hare grass has lain.”
Still the power of this beautiful “silent form” remains:

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

According to Bate these final words are meant to convey what Keats called the “greeting of the Spirit,” that dynamic encounter of the imagination with nature which “is itself as much a part of nature, or reality, as is its object.” With the “harmony (‘beauty,’ ‘intensity’) of the greeting mind and its object,” writes Bate quoting Keats, “we have a fresh achievement altogether within nature: a ‘truth—whether it existed before or not’ in which reality has been awakened further into awareness.”

A year before he wrote this ode, Keats had outlined in a letter his view of religion and the theory of poetry that followed from it. “You know my ideas about Religion,” he told Benjamin Bailey, who was concerned about his friend’s religious uncertainty. Keats had “a mind so left to itself—an orphan mind,” Bailey was to write decades after the poet’s death, that it seemed hardly surprising he was given to skepticism, “yet he was no scoffer, & in no sense was he an infidel,” Bailey wrote of his friend.26 In his letter to Bailey, Keats explained, “I do not think myself more in the right than other people and that nothing in this world is proveable,” but he also admitted that he could not, even for a “short 10 minutes,” enter into this subject as eagerly as his friend was able to do. He was too skeptical of the outmoded doctrines of Christianity and too committed to his own “system of Salvation” to take the Bible’s claims seriously.

At times, Keats confessed to Bailey, he even looked skeptically upon poetry itself and considered it to be “a mere Jack a lanthern to amuse whoever may chance to be struck with its brilliance.” Since, “as Tradesmen say everything is worth what it will fetch,” it may be that “every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer—being in itself a nothing.” Still, despite the conjuring powers of ardent pursuit, there are many “Things real” and “things semireal” in the world. Substantial realities, such as the “Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare,” can stand on their own without the support of human willing or imagining, but many things of value, “Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds” do “require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist.” These things are not called out of nothing by the mind but made vital through their contact with it. They require the vivifying power of the imagination to bring to life their latent form and vitality, and without a “greeting of the Spirit,” these things remain mute and incomplete, because they are objects in desperate need of the subjects that make them whole. In turn, they are to be distinguished from what Keats identifies as a third class of “things.” These are the fantasies of human imagining, the “Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit—Which by the by stamps the burgundy mark on the bottles of our Minds, insomuch as they are able to ‘consecrate whate’er they look upon.’

This celebration of the “greeting Spirit” follows a series of similar observations Keats had made in previous letters to Bailey and to his own brothers. Even as he was writing his great odes and entering his death struggle with tuberculosis, Keats was forging in his vision of beauty as belief a romantic variation on the aesthetics of Baumgarten and Kant. “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth,” he wrote to Bailey. “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth.… O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”29 A few weeks later he told his brothers of his conviction that “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.” Keats cherished most of all a quality he believed “Shakespeare possessed so enormously.” He called it “Negative Capability” and defined it as the capacity for remaining “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”30 This was Kant’s disinterestedness given a Keatsian twist, just as the theory of the Imagination was an intuitive variation upon the Kantian theme of synthetic judgment.

Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 191–195.

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life