John Keats Notion of Negative Capability in Odes

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      Keats considered poetry to be the embodiment of the ripest and fullest experience mankind is capable of. Poetry should not have “a palpable design upon us.” It should be unobtrusive, something which the reader can accept with all its mystery. This is the general direction of thought which emerges in all of Keats’s letters. Poetry, he recommends, should be the outcome of the “Negative Capability” which “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”, and is free of “any irritable reaching out after fact and reason.”

What is Negative Capability?

      At first sight the doctrine appears deliberately anti-intellectual, but it is not so. What is aimed at is a rich comprehension of experience, largeness and compassion; not the egotistic self-assertion, but the negation of self which characterized Shakespeare. It is a capacity for objectivity in the midst of terrible personal suffering, and the capacity to come to terms with this misery not through fact and reason, but through an understanding of its true nature. It may be inadequately called acceptance. It involves the ability to identify oneself with the subject of one’s poetry or art. Shakespeare could enter and merge into the personality of Lear in his madness or the clown in his fun-fury. It is what makes his drama great; He, of all great poets, possessed- the ‘Negative Capability” to create an Iago or an Imogen, dark villainy or pure innocence with equal perfection. Thus, according to Keats, ‘‘a poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity— he is continually in for and filling some other body.”

Negative Capability related to the concept of Beauty and Truth

      In a significant statement, Keats remarked: ‘‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon poet.” He wanted, like Shakespeare, to accept the world of men and women, accept all things in all moods, from loathing and disgust to exaltation and serenity. He Wanted to reveal the beauty of life in life, to realize in his own work the principle that truth is beauty and beauty is truth. Negative Capability is closely related to the ability to perceive Beauty—with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration. He says that the “excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.” The chameleon poet, who delights in the creation of an Iago as well as an Imogen, can create the same kind of delight in the reader who is made to perceive beauty even in suffering and ugliness. Beauty has a deep meaning for Keats. Anything seen or felt with intensity has to be beautiful and true because of that very intensity.

Keats’s steady development towards the achievement of’ Negative Capability

      Keats, from the beginning of his poetic career, was conscious of his goal - the achievement of Negative capability in which attitudes to good and evil are balanced and seen against a wider perspective. Keats apparently possessed this quality in himself - the ability to take part in the existence of even a sparrow and “pick about the gravel.”

Negative Capability and the Odes

      Besides Hyperion in which Moneta’s face symbolizes the tragic impersonality and the comfort in suffering, the closest that Keats comes to the achievement of Negative Capability is in the Odes. In the Ode, to a Nightingale, and Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats faces the tragic dilemma of life with courage, though he does not quite completely resolve the dilemma. But Keats is able to enter into the joy of the nightingale “Too happy in thine happiness.” With an acute awareness of the mutability of human life, he can still take joy in the unheard melodies and the “Still unravished bride of quietness.” The Grecian Urn, silent embodiment of classic purity of form, haunts us and teases us out of thought until we can only contemplate and absorb the eternal values it symbolizes, ‘‘without any veritable reaching out after fact and reason.”

      The Ode on Melancholy possesses the rich complexity of experience and presents it exactly. Keats enters so completely into what he is describing that the identification of poet and experience is complete, and the poem loses all the privacy and irrelevance of an individual event: it takes on the universality of greatness. The inseparability of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, transience and permanence is apparent to any sensitive human being. But intensity of melancholy lends it a queer pleasure, because intensity is part of full living—even though short-lived.

      To Autumn has been called “as nearly perfect as such writing can be.” The poem on the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness seems to be the result of Keats’s own progress towards maturity of vision. The transience, pain and ugliness is all unregretfully accepted, for it is all part of a greater more permanent cycle of birth, growth, death and renewal. But the affirmation of faith in the processes of life and change is not asserted—in the manner of a “poetry with a palpable design upon us.” The poem draws us into the experience, the poem’s completeness and unity contribute to an act of moral understanding. Keats allows life to flow in upon him, and the rich store of sense impressions is transformed into an” act of calm, meditative wisdom. The ode stands at the end of Keats's; search to achieve the maturity of “negative capability.” The rhythms of seasons are inevitably the rhythms of man’s life, and Keats in enjoying this autumn accepts the brute fact of winter, and affirms faith in the ultimate but ceaselessly wonderful return of spring.


      Keats to a large extent possessed the tendency, which may be called the Shakespearean strain, of interesting himself with what he saw or heard. He did not achieve the Negative Capability to the full. He achieved the ability to present a scene vividly, to a large extent with concrete objectivity—as for instance in the Ode To Autumn. He could make the scene embody thought and feeling. But as for the capacity of becoming “many selves”, Keats has not succeeded; and it is futile to wonder if he would have if he had not died so young.

University Questions

Write a brief essay on Keats’s notion of Negative Capability. Illustrate from his Odes.
Keats’s art is marked by concreteness and objectivity. Illustrate with examples from his Odes.
“The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth,” Examine with reference to Keats’s Odes

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