The phrase used by the English poet John Keats to describe the quality of selfless receptivity necessary to a true poet. In a letter to his brothers (December 1817), he writes
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 man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
He goes on to criticize Coleridge for not being ‘content with half knowledge’; and in later letters complains of the ‘egotistical’ and philosophical bias of Wordsworth’s poetry. By negative capability, then, Keats seems to have meant a poetic capacity to efface one’s own mental identity by immersing it sympathetically and spontaneously within the subject described, as Shakespeare was thought to have done.
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 mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.
Keats believed that great people (especially poets) have the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved. Keats was a Romantic and believed that the truths found in the imagination access holy authority. Such authority cannot otherwise be understood, and thus he writes of “uncertainties.” This “being in uncertaint[y]” is a place between the mundane and ready reality and the multiple potentials of a more fully understood existence.
Keats expressed this idea in several of his poems
- La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad (1819)
- Ode to a Nightingale (1819)
- The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream (1819)
Negative capability is a state of intentional open mindedness that has many parallels in other writers’ literary and philosophical stances. Much has been written about this. Walter Jackson Bate, Keats’s authoritative biographer, wrote an entire book from his Harvard honors thesis on the topic.
The footnote to the negative capability letter in the 1958 Harvard UP edition of the Letters of John Keats references the work of Woodhouse, Bate, C. L. Finney, Barbara Hardy, G. B. Harrison, and George Watson, all prior to the edition’s printing in 1958. Additionally, Nathan Scott (author of a book entitled Negative Capability), notes that negative capability has been compared to philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit, “the spirit of disponibilité before What-Is which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery.”
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