On John Keats’s 218th Birthday…

keats… here, what to my mind remains, besides & on a par with the poems, his greatest contribution to 20C & 21C poetics & thought,  & found in his  Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, ?27 December 1817

namely, Negative Capability:
Hampstead Sunday
22 December 1818

My dear Brothers

I must crave your pardon for not having written ere this [ . . . ] [T]he excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth—Examine King Lear & you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness—The picture is larger than Christ rejected—I dined with Haydon the sunday after you left, & had a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith & met his two brothers with Hill & Kingston & one Du Bois, they only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment—These men say things which make one start, without making one feel, they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their very eating & drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter—They talked of Kean & his low company—Would I were with that company instead of yours said I to myself! I know such like acquaintance will never do for me & yet I am going to Reynolds, on wednesday—Brown & Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime.  I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; 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 meanNegative 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.

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2 Responses

  1. Good seeing and remembeing the original context of this vastly misunderstood statement of Keats. That he prefaces it with references to Lear and ‘Man of Achievement in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously’…Yes, and ‘fact and reason’ leading back to Coleridge who would forego ‘the Penetralium of mystery’ (nice phrase) because it would leave him with ‘half knowledge.’ Heady stuff…

  2. michael burke says:

    still the only poet who might have reached WS’s
    Ode to Autumn —best lyric poem in english

    his early death biggest loss to literature i am aware of

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