John Keats and ‘negative capability’ | Sunday Observer

John Keats and ‘negative capability’

In December 1817 John Keats was returning from the Christmas pantomime with his friends Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Brown. On the walk home, he later told his brothers George and Tom, he got into a ‘disquisition’ with Dilke on a number of subjects: several things dovetailed in my mind, and at once 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.

It is a famous passage; and it is entirely characteristic of Keats that he should come up with one of his most telling phrases (‘Negative Capability’) in such an impromptu fashion, without preamble or lengthy explanation. His language is not immediately clear, but richly suggestive and idiosyncratic.

What does Keats mean by ‘negative capability’?

Clearly, he is using the word ‘negative’ not in a pejorative sense, but to convey the idea that a person’s potential can be defined by what he or she does not possess

In this case a need to be clever, a determination to work everything out. Essential to literary achievement, Keats argues, is a certain passivity, a willingness to let what is mysterious or doubtful remain just that.

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