Negative Capability: Embracing Uncertainty and Celebrating the Mysterious.
In a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, found in Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends and dated December 21, 1817, Keats uses the phrase that has come to be the single most emblematic phrase of his entire surviving correspondence, even though he only makes mention of it once: “Negative Capability” — the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
Negative Capability made easy through the appeal of images!
What is this man doing with Keats’s concept? How do you relate to “negative capability”? In other words, do you deem it a useful concept to bear in mind in your life? Why (not)?
Negative capability explained in words!
“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.” —Leo Stein, American art collector and critic
In an 1817 letter to a friend, the poet John Keats describes one of the qualities that makes writers like Shakespeare so great: negative capability. Keats defines this trait as “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In other words, this is the ability to sublimate one’s own individual assumptions about the world and write about uncertain (or potentially polarizing) topics in such a way that the author’s own views remain unknown. It is also the recognition that there are often grey areas in life which cannot be resolved through rational means. This requires an extraordinary degree of objectivity, and it’s much harder than it seems. To enter into the mind of other people (or things) and speak from their point of view is an essential goal for writers.Often some of the most engaging literary works are those where there is no clear side taken on contentious issues (such as the free will versus predestination dichotomy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). But the question is, how can writers break free from their own personal perceptions and approach subjects from a more objective point of view?
1. Read writers who are good at negative capability: Keats, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. But there are plenty of other notable authors, such as Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, Anne Rice, Walt Whitman, and John Updike.
2. Learn to view situations from other people’s perspectives. Imagine not what you would do if you were facing their circumstances, but rather think about what they would do and why.
3. Step into the unknown. Force yourself to write about subjects or situations you are uncomfortable with (or know little about).
4. Write in a new genre. Tell a familiar tale in a different format. Different literary conventions require different sensibilities, and this can lead to breakthroughs in our perceptions of subjects.
One of the joys of reading is having the opportunity to experience situations from someone else’s perspective. To do this convincingly, writers must learn to put aside their own ideas about the world and imagine alternative possibilities. This is terra incognita for many people, but by embracing this approach, you may discover new avenues of creative potential, and this is exactly what KEATS teachers US! He would have been a great creative writing instructor, wouldn’t he?
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Different painters were inspired by this poem. Look at their works of art. In the light of the analysis of the poem and your reading of it, which painting do you like best? Why? Try to substantiate your choice with references to the poem itself.
John William Waterhouse
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Look at the following videos to learn more about this great, yet difficult, ode.
The BBC webpage has an interesting section dedicated to The Romantics, worth browsing it: you can see the original manuscript too, if you are interested.
I highly suggest you listen to/watch the following lectures on the ode, so that you expose yoruself to different ways of analysing a poem, to different expressions to explain the same concepts. It is good listening comprehension and a good way to expand your vocabulary and hone your listening skill. Which lecture do you like best? Why? As a student, which teacher/lecturer of these would appeal to you the most? Substantiate your choice. We will discuss this point in class together.
Do you agree that art takes its truth from life and then returns it to life as beauty as is suggested in the poem? The poet seems to suggest that only the dead are immortal how are they immortalized?
This is a detailed analysis that I prepared some time ago for other students of mine. I decided to post it here because some of you may find it useful.
BBC Omnibus, 1995 – To commemorate the bicentenary of sublime English poet John Keats, Andrew Motion (now Poet Laureate) recreates the final, futile voyage from England to Italy
If you go to Rome, do not miss the Keats-Shelley house. It is a great place to visit, especially for people like you, who had the chance to study English literature.