John Keats and ‘negative capability’

Stephen Hebron explores Keats’s understanding of negative capability, a concept which prizes intuition and uncertainty above reason and knowledge.

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, & 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 a 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.[1]

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. His fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he suggests, would do well to break off from his relentless search for knowledge, and instead contemplate something beautiful and true (‘a fine verisimilitude’) caught, as if by accident, from the most secret part (‘Penetralium’) of mystery. The experience and intuitive appreciation of the beautiful is, indeed, central to poetic talent, and renders irrelevant anything that is arrived at through reason. Keats ends his brief discussion of negative capability by concluding that ‘with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’.

The poetical character

Keats never repeated the phrase ‘negative capability’ in his letters. Like similar nuggets found throughout his correspondence, it is of the moment, prompted by a desire to share his latest thoughts with his friends; it is not part of an overarching intellectual structure. But it is prefigured in a slightly earlier letter, written to Benjamin Bailey on 22 November 1817, in which Keats observed that he was unable to see ‘how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive [sic] reasoning … can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections – However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!’.[2]

And Keats touched again on the idea of the passivity, humility even, of a great writer, in a letter he wrote to his friend Richard Woodhouse on 27 October following year. The ‘poetical Character’, he maintained,

is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago [the villain of Shakespeare’s Othello] as an Imogen [Shakespeare’s heroine in Cymbeline]. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.[3]

The word ‘gusto’ was used by Keats’s contemporary, the essayist and critic William Hazlitt, to describe the power and passion with which an artist creates another form. ‘The infinite quantity of dramatic invention in Shakespeare takes from his gusto’, Hazlitt wrote in the Examiner on 26 May 1816; ‘The power he delights to show is not intense, but discursive. He never insists on any thing as much as he might, except a quibble.’

Keats, who knew Hazlitt and was influenced by his writing, developed this idea. He found an ‘indescribable gusto’ in the voice of his favourite actor, Edmund Kean, who completely inhabited the parts he played. Great poets, argued Keats, had gusto because they were not impeded in their work by an identity of their own, with personal opinions that might affect the independence and freedom of the characters they create: a poet, he told Woodhouse, ‘has no Identity – he is continually informing and filling some other Body’.[4]

Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets

Pages 6 and 7, from Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets

‘Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe’: from William Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets, 1818. Keats is believed to have attended and been influenced by Hazlitt's lectures, held in London.

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Men of genius

Keats recognised the chameleon aspect of his own nature. He would watch sparrows from his window and pick about with them in the gravel. He would imagine the delight a billiard ball might take in its own roundness, in its smooth, rapid motion. More dramatically, he told Woodhouse how, in a room full of people, he would quickly be ‘annihilated’ by the different identities pressing upon him. But that was the nature of poets, of the men of genius Keats habitually measured himself against. He told his friend Benjamin Bailey on 27 November 1817:

In passing however I must say one thing that has pressed upon me lately and increased my Humility and capability of submission, and that is this truth – Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character.[5]

First among these men of genius, for Keats, was Shakespeare, who possessed negative capability ‘so enormously’. When he was beginning his first long poem, Endymion, on the Isle of Wight in 1817, Keats imagined Shakespeare as the genius presiding over him. The thoughts on literature which he shared in his letters are always deeply interesting, but their power also comes from their urgency, an urgency derived from the single-minded dedication with which Keats pursued his ambition to become a great poet.

Letter from John Keats discussing the calling of the poet, 10 May 1817

Handwritten letter from John Keats to Leigh Hunt

Letter from John Keats to Leigh Hunt, written while composing his first long poem Endymion, in which he discusses the role of the poet and muses on the works of Shakespeare, 1817.

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[1] The Letters of John Keats, ed. by H E Rollins, 2 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), i, pp. 193–4.

[2] Ibid., p. 185.

[3] Ibid., pp. 386–7.

[4] Ibid., p. 387.

[5] Ibid., p. 184.

  • Stephen Hebron
  • Stephen Hebron is a curator at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. He has published widely in the field of British Romanticism, including most recently John Keats – A Poet and His Manuscripts (2009) and Shelley’s Ghost (2010).

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.