Prof. A. Vardy
16 December 2009
“—I mean Negative Capability”:
Keats’s Quest for the Poetic Ideal
I have left
My strong identity, my real self,
Somewhere between the throne, and where I sit
Here on the spot of earth.
—Saturn, from Hyperion
In John Gibson Lockhart’s review “The Cockney School of Poetry No. IV” (1818) from the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 3, John Keats was a stupid, naïve, pigheaded dreamer with a bad taste in poetry and politics, an abusive passion for writing, and a talent that was much ado about nothing. Placing Keats in the Cockney School, Lockhart argued Keats’s work instilled a “lower-middle-class vulgarity, lasciviousness, radicalism, and aesthetic lack of taste” (Wu 1008), criticizing him for such things as his rhyming style and use of working-class diction. If one were to summarize the career of Keats through Lockhart-colored glasses, one would be blinded from the truth. The genius of John Keats lies in his constant endeavor for perfection of his poetic craft: particularly in his development and demonstration of Negative Capability (to elucidate the role of the poet). In earlier works, we see how he developed this poetic ideal, with his “Ode to a Nightingale” as the culmination and (the closest) perfected demonstration of Negative Capability.
Using Keats’s letters (specifically his letters to his brothers on negative capability, Clarke on accumulated experience, Bailey on imagination, Reynolds on slow development, the voyage of conception and the Mansion of Many Apartments, Woodhouse on poetic Character, and George and Georgina Keats on the vale of soul-making and the intellect) to define special Keatsian cognitive terms, I will establish Keats’s foundation for his development toward negative capability. As these terms are defined, their relationship to each other will be speculated as part of a fluid set of stages—Keats’s personally suggestive “how-to” on becoming an ideal poet. This all will demonstrate the true genius of Keats, why he has made a lasting impression on the poetic world, and explain why John Keats was not a stupid, naïve, pigheaded dreamer.
Using Keats’s Letters as a Starting Point
Art enthusiasts, when wanting to study a painter’s style, usually starts with the works—to understand van Gough, one observes “Starry Night” or his “Café Terrace at Night.” Likewise, when studying a poet, or any writer for that matter, to understand their literary style and thematic pursuits, one usually begins with the works themselves. Like golf balls in the rough, the mystery of Keats and the wisdom of his masterpieces, however, are hidden in the pages of his personal letters to his friends and family, spelt out like a textbook. As Edwards noted, “We find in [Keats’s letters] a fascinating documentation of the development of one of the great minds of his age—and one of the most sophisticated theorists on art and literature” (3), and even more so, Young acknowledged that, through his letters, it was “possible to trace the evolution of Keats’s poetic thought and technique as he matured and refined his ideas and beliefs regarding literature” (273).
Keats was a diamond in the rough—an ore of a poet, if you will. His inherent genius, combined with his passion and love of life, is only understood first in his letters before we even approach his works. While he “occasionally yearned for solitude,” G. Scott explained how the
stereotype of the isolated romantic poet—confined to some lonely hut in the wilds, generating poems in a visionary frenzy with ‘flashing eyes’ and ‘floating hair’—could hardly be less appropriate for Keats. He is genial and gregarious, inseparable from the tight network of his friends. (558)
In addition to his sociability, we find in his letters a “larger humanitarian mission” (G. Scott 588) to teach the world about the “proximity of the mundane and the profound,” how there is a “seamless integration of everyday life with the life of the mind” (G. Scott 556).
Knowing Keats’s life story, we can understand his quest to understand and find the answers to some of man’s hard-asked questions, questions that he outlines in his letters. “Keats saw a vital connection between poetry and the ‘real world,’” stated G. Scott, “the world of suffering and misfortune that beset those closest to him” (557). In addition, we are “also invited [through his letters] to see each work not merely as a discreet self-contained unity, but part of his broader approach to such issues as death and loss, love and deception, stasis and change” (Edwards 7), and as further noted by Edwards:
Despite his seemingly otherworldly subject matter there is little that is aloof about his work. Empathy and intense involvement are writ large in his poems—and even more apparent in the compassion which pervades his friendships and his letters. (13)
It is in his letters that we are introduced to the many hats that Keats wore: the man, the poet, the philosopher, the teacher, and the lover. From the way he outlines his philosophies, to his interactions with his friends, to his overwhelming passion for life and art, we discover the Keats he was and the Keats he hoped to become.
Most critics should understand the justification used to study Keats’s letters before turning to his work. While correspondence are usually seen as footnotes to an artist’s career, for Keats they are focal points. The reason behind closely reading his letters, however, is in the
remarkable fact of the letters is that his most famous ideas—Negative Capability, the Chameleon Poet, the Vale of Soul-making, the Mansion of Many Apartments—appear only once. They are neither repeated to other correspondents nor formalized in published essays, but remain provisional, bound within the specific human context of a letter.” (G. Scott 555–556)
Before we visit his verse, we must first understand his cognitive jargon, his ideals for a poet, his path toward perfecting the craft of poetic art. We must start with the philosopher-man-teacher before observing the poet before his nightingale.
Reading Keats’s Letters to Discover His Process Toward Negative Capability
At the bicentennial celebration of Keats’s birthday in 1995, Walter Evert provided this witness account:
It was through Keats…that I learned how to experience poetry, not merely through emotional identification and intellectual analysis but as a miracle of rare device, a structure of associative elements in which the building blocks of rational order were reassembled to create something the mind could grasp and the tongue describe but which never existed before, and whose existence changed all the world around…. And through my fortuitous experience of Keats I can say that for me, the primary experience of poetry is prior to all the agendas that poetry may touch upon or lend itself to. (Ryan & Sharp 8)
As we will discover later, as Keats learnt style and theme from his poetic forefathers, Keats teaches us (in a more perfected way) the art and craft of poetry. If we were studying the relationship of man to the divine, for example, Keats is to Augustine as Shakespeare is to Plato.
Borrowing partially from Bate’s article “Negative Capability,” I will attempt to outline Keats’s path toward the negative capability ideal as follows: a) Native gift and accumulated experience, b) “Slow development, maturity, rooted strength, leisure for growth” (19), c) “Voyage of conception” (19), d) Stylistic copying and mimicry, e) Understanding the limitations of tradition, f) Developing craft in illustration, imagery, and detail, g) Imaginative identity in relation to sensation, memory, and imagination, h) Understanding and developing poetical character, and finally i) Approaching negative capability.
Native gift and accumulated experience
The first step in approaching negative capability is native gift and accumulated experience. One must possess some level of poetic talent (in order to be a poet capable of negative capability) and then accumulate experience through the craft of poetry and through the experience of life itself. In his October 9, 1816 letter to Clarke, written upon his completion of medical school and entrance into London literary life, we find Keats calling the simple act of meeting Leigh Hunt a “pleasure” and “an Era in [his] existence” (Cox 9). Making reference to his “Epistle to George Mathew” (Cox 10–11), we know that Keats already possesses some level of poetic talent:
Of courteous knights-errant, and high-mettled steeds;
Of forests enchanted, and marvelous streams;—
Of bridges, and castles, and desperate deeds;
And all the bright fictions of fanciful dreams:—
While a bit poetically rudimentary, the necessity of poetry exists: there is an imaginative awareness of experience (“O thou who delightest in fanciful song,/And tallest strange tales of the elf and the fay”), and while it was not necessary, there is meter and rhyme. The detail is extraordinary, but truthfully a bit much (this will be discussed later). Nonetheless, as an example, Keats possessed the native gift of poetry and delighted in the opportunity of accumulated experience of writing poetry or simply being “acquainted with Men who in their admiration of Poetry [did] not jumble together Shakespeare and Darwin” (Cox 9). Keats believed that “a poem…emerges from the pains and pleasures of life, but these do not come to us frankly professing their value as sensations; the poem refuses to associate the value of what is made of the experience with its utility of the experiencer” (Bromwich 184). While harsh critics existed in Keats’s time, early on in his career and later with Lockhart, Woodhouse believed the contrary, writing to his cousin Mary Frogley in 1818, “In all places, and at all times, and before all persons, I would express and as far as I am able, support my high opinion of his poetical merits—such a genius, I verily believe, has not appeared since Shakespeare and Milton” (275). Keats was a force to be reckoned with, and he was just getting started.
Slow development, maturity, rooted strength, leisure for growth
Minister and author Eric Butterworth once said, “Don’t go through life, grow through life.” This implies that approaching life must be slow in development, attaining maturity in that slowness, rooted in strength (just like plants grow in strength due to their root system), and giving time for leisure to further aide in development. For this reason, slow development, maturity, rooted strength, and leisure for growth are all lumped together as one step because they spiral over each other. As noted by Bate in his criticism “Negative Capability”:
First [for Keats], the problem of form or style in art enters more specifically. Second, the ideal toward which he is groping is contrasted more strongly with the egoistic assertion of one’s own identity. Third, the door is further opened to the perception—which he was to develop within the next few months—of the sympathetic potentialities of the imagination. (13)
These “problems” he needed to work out in his craft indeed needed a “few months,” if not years, in order to be realized and understood. The mere addressing of these problems also denotes a maturity in Keats’s craft. Moreover, “as a reader [Keats] loved poetry which was ‘Full’ of meaning, ‘rich’ in thought and capable of acting as a ‘starting post’ for the reader’s own musings” (Edwards 8), which meant time, patients, maturity, and the fact that he “loved” reading the poetry, one could argue the power of leisure. Indolence, for Keats, was “a characteristic of the best poets, alternating moods of activity and indolence being, in fact, the rhythm of the mind necessary for” the development of poetic craft (Muir 304).
In many of his letters, he takes pleasure in writing long, epic correspondence (which undoubtedly took long stretches of time to compose), paying attention to minute detail. “This cleft,” he wrote to Reynolds on April 17–18, 1817, “is filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Ballustrades of beautiful green Hedges along their steps down to the sands.—But the sea, Jack, the sea—the little waterfall—then the white cliff—then St Catherine’s Hill—‘the sheep in the meadows, the cows in the corn’” (Cox 77). In the writing of a letter, he is forcing himself to slow down over the “trees & bushes” and where the cleft “widens [and] becomes bare,” over the “primroses” to “the very verge of the Sea,” down the “little waterfall” and “white cliff” then up “St Catherine’s Hill.” Paying attention to detail is a sign of poetic maturity, and this example shows how he’s using leisure to support his poetic growth.
I will leave off on a final thought on rooted strength. For Keats, “ambiguity and ambivalence are sources of strength not weakness” (Edwards 9), and furthermore, “the excellence of art lay in its intensity, but that…could be a kind of sensual intensity, a warm vagueness which suggested rather than explained, an almost subliminal technique which provided so much of his poetic power” (Sullivan 9). The rooted strength of poetry, Keats felt, was in the intensity of emotion and detail, but leaving that emotion and detail to be determined by the reader through “ambiguity and ambivalence” that was “suggested rather than explained.” As he stated in his letter to George and Georgiana Keats from February to May 1819, “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party” (362).
Voyage of conception
As stated earlier, Keats sought a “larger humanitarian mission.” He understood suffering very well and hoped that poetry could aide in the understanding and endurance of suffering. In his February 19, 1818, letter to Reynolds, Keats wrote,
I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life…. When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting post towards all “the two-and thirty Pallaces.” How happy is such a voyage of conception! what delicious diligent Indolence! A doze upon a Sofa does not hinder it, and a napp upon Clover engenders ethereal finger-pointings—the prattle of a child gives it wings, and the converse of middle-age a strength to beat them—a strain of musick conducts to ‘an odd angle of the Isle’ and when the leaves whisper it puts a ‘girdle round the earth.’ (Cox 126)
Extending the idea of leisure for growth through Indolence, he adds how a certain level of intellect opens passages for happiness. As Magill notes, “Following the lead of his contemporary William Wordsworth, though with a completely original emphasis, Keats’s territory for development and conquest became the interior world of mental landscape and its imaginings,” then goes on to say, “Keats initially sought to transcend reality, rather than to transform it, with the power of the imagination to dream” (1773). Life throws some nasty curveballs, but through the employment of the intellect combined with indolence, “a Man might pass a very pleasant life.” The voyage of conception was also a way for Keats to attain accumulated experience, even if that was simply resting “upon a Sofa,” napping “upon Clover,” conversing with those “of middle-age,” listening to “the prattle of a child,” “a strain of musick,” or “the leaves whisper,” all of these so-called mundane events could all be accumulated into experience to support the growth of the poetic art.
Stylistic copying and mimicry
While Keats was stylistically copying and mimicking many different kinds of poets from the start of his literary career, this is an appropriate place for its explanation in the development toward negative capability. As Woodhouse explained to his cousin, “[Keats’s] imitation of our older writers, and especially of our older dramatists, to which we cannot help flattering ourselves that we have somewhat contributed, has brought on, as it were, a second spring in our poetry;—and few of its blossoms are either more profuse of sweetness or richer in promise, that this which is now before us” (276). He followed Wordsworth “by internalizing the quest toward finding a world that answered the poet’s desires, and he hoped to follow Shakespeare by making that world more than a sublime projection of his own ego” (Bloom “John Keats” 5), and moreover, he “followed the Shakespearean model of impersonality in art; that is, the surrendering of self to the fullest development of character and object, and it is this impersonality, coupled with intensity, that makes his poetry readily accessible to a wide range of modern readers” (Magill 1770).
The necessity of tradition for Keats went beyond the fact that Spencer, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth were simply good poets. He had great purpose in employing access to these poetic giants. Magill asserts:
Keats knew that he needed deeper knowledge to surpass Wordsworth, but there was not much he could do about it. Though it was an attractive imagining, no god was likely to pour knowledge into the wide hollows of his brain. “I am…young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness,” he wrote…, “without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion.” (1776)
Simply put, while Keats knew that to develop his craft, he needed accumulated experience. Being young, he lacked that experience and education. The beauty of literature is that one could experience others’ experiences vicariously through their work. He also understood with humility that he could not possibly know it all, but there were others who could direct him. Levinson explained, “He was not…permitted possession of the social grammar inscribed in that aesthetic array, and this was just what Keats was after” (551), and that’s what he sought out to do. De Reyes further affirmed: “It was thus to the two great masters of Life and Nature—Shakespeare and Wordsworth—that the young poet turned. He went to them—not for inspiration—for that was already his—but rather for direction of his intellect” (282).
It is important to note, however, that Keats was not seeking a plagiaristic Xerox copy of the poetic greats, but a stylistic copy and mimicry that he could transcend and make his own. “He dignified” Mathew’s poems and transcended “anything Mathew wrote,” and had brought “Hunt more to life,” demonstrating “nothing of the routine mechanism of a copy” (Bate “Negative Capability” 24). Keats’s poetry “opens itself to the Tradition, defining itself as a theater wherein such contests may be eternally and inconclusively staged” (Levinson 554), but went well beyond the tradition, because “with his new-found technical poise (the assured control of Miltonic blank verse, the stillness he created with the Spenserian stanza and even his sudden expert use of the Augustan heroic couplet, in Hyperion, The Eve and Lamia respectively) he seemed to be more open to different styles but at the same time more confident that he could make these various styles his own” (Edwards 38). In one of his early sonnets “To one who has been long in city pent,” for example, we see a Keats immersed in and learning from tradition. The poem begins: “To one who has been long in city pent,” making reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Coleridge’s “To the Nightingale” (Cox 54).
Understanding the limitations of tradition
While tradition is very important to draw on, it is very important to note that “somewhere in the heart of each new poet there is hidden the dark wish that the libraries be burned in some new Alexandrian conflagration, that the imagination might be liberated from the greatness and oppressive power of its own dead champions” (Bloom “John Keats” 1). De Man further asserts how being a young poet in the shadow of poetic giants “measures his own inadequacy and dwarfs the present” (538), and Magill further noted,
Keats struggled…with the existential issues of the artist’s life—developing the talent and maintaining the heart to live up to immense ambitions. It is to be doubted whether poets will ever be able to look to Shakespeare or to Milton as models without living in distress that deepens with every passing work. (1773)
Keats needed to rely on the past without letting it destroy his future, what little of it he had. If twenty-first century music artists, for example, measured their success in comparison to such twentieth century artists as Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Diana Ross, they would neither be able to live up to nor surpass these standards. The twenty-first century musician can, however, borrow the music styles of their forbearers and make them their own in order to better their own musical styles. And that is what Keats set out to do.
Developing craft in illustration, imagery, and detail
As stated earlier in relation to slowing down and maturing in poetic craft, Keats started paying attention to detail. At the beginning, when learning any new skill, Keats employed detail and imagery way too much, and his closest friends were the first to admit it. George Mathew (50–54) and even Leigh Hunt on two separate occasions described Keats’s imagery as “ill management of a good thing” (Hunt “Leigh Hunt displays Keats’s’ ‘calm power’: 1820” 171) and “super-abundance” (Hunt “Leigh Hunt announces a new school of poetry: 1817” 58). Arnold noted Keats’s redundancy to detail on four separate occasions (Arnold “Arnold on Keats: 1848, 1849, 1852, 1853” 325–327). The Monthly Review called it “superabundance” (162); Dallas said it was “excessive,” “extravagance,” “too rich,” and with “no proportion” (357). Young noted, which may explain such harsh criticism on his detail, “His fervent tone and sensual imagery appeared shockingly effusive to early nineteenth-century critics schooled in the more formal neoclassical poetics of the eighteenth century” (273).
Some critics, however, were not willing to condemn Keats on detail so quickly. Clarke declared, “The only fault in his poetry I could discover was a redundancy of imagery,—the exuberance, by-the-by, being a quality of the greatest promise, seeing that it is the constant accompaniment of a young and teeming genius” (406). Woodhouse “would at once admit” Keats’s “great faults,” but the faults “are more than counterbalanced by his beauties…. His faulte will wear away—his fire will be chastened—and then eyes will do homage to his brilliancy” (275). Jeffrey described at length:
They [Endymion and Lamia…and Other Poems] are full of extravagance and irregularity, rash attempts at originality, interminable wanderings, and excessive obscurity. They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt:—but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrewn with the flowers of poetry, that even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present. (202–203)
While each critic acknowledges that excess in illustration is a pitfall of poetry, they cannot help but admire the “intoxication” and “enchantments” of Keats’s authorship.
Keats provides a defense to his use of detail in his February 27, 1818, letter to John Taylor:
1st. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance—2nd. It touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the sun come natural to him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight—but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all. However it may be with me I cannot help looking into new countries with ‘O for a Muse of fire to ascend!’ (Cox 128)