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Daily Lit: Keats and Negative Capability

on December 6, 2011

What poetic term describes living your life while accepting that it is filled with uncertainty?

October 23, 2010

On December 21, 1817, the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brother in which he expressed and named a quality of human existence that is tricky to a

rticulate. Keat’s formulation has been adopted by philosophers, poets, and others ever since.

Roughly, the idea is our ability to simultaneously acknowledge the unpredictable nature of events and conduct ourselves with confidence and happiness. He called this familiar yet complex concept negative capability.

Here’s a passage from Keat’s letter elucidating the theory: “…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 felt that it was great thinkers in particular (like poets, for example) who had the negative capability to see that all life’s big questions can’t be resolved.

(Speaking of poets, why is the Poet Laureate, well, a “laureate?” Learn the fascinating historyof the word, here.)

Scholars believe that Keats explores this idea in several poems, including his famous works “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

It should be noted that while other writers continued to explore negative capability, Keats only explicitly mentioned it once — in the aforementioned letter to his brother. This isn’t the only idea Keats casually mentioned that turned out to be hugely influential. You can read more about his life, poetry, and philosophy, here. It was an infamously tragic life. He died at 25, and his significance as a poet of the Romantic movement became clear only after his death.

On the topic of conditions that are hard to describe, what do you call the state when you are neither awake nor truly asleep? We present you with an answer, here.




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