KLP Editors Kick Off the Negative Capability Party!

The KLP Editors
Keats University (JK!)

Re: Keats’s 21, 27 Dec 1817 letter to George and Tom Keats

To get things rolling with the KLP’s negative capability commemoration, three of the KLP editors (Ian Newman, Kate Singer, and Michael Theune) offer some opening thoughts about the letter and its famous concept. But first, in case you need a refresher, head over to read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (with a few discrepancies from the John Jeffrey transcript that provides the sole source for  the text). Or, if you’re adventurous, read the Jeffrey transcript itself, with images below courtesy of Harvard.

Page 1 of John Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 21-27 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Page 2 of John Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 21-27 letter to George and Tom Keats. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Michael Theune: Odi et amo. I hate and I love. That’s exactly how I feel about negative capability. I love this term. It’s so sexy and seductive, and, well, useful. I mean, without recourse to negative capability how on Earth am I supposed to try to explain to anyone why Keats’s “To Autumn” is so great? What better option than negative capability do I have to correct my students who think (because they’ve been taught) that all writing must make a palpable design upon its reader? Negative capability really is a vital response to so many confounding occasions and perplexing questions. But it’s terrible, as well. Or, rather, it’s terrible, what’s become of it. I make this argument here. I’m not the only one to think so. In the early-1980’s W. S. DiPiero called negative capability a “literary cult object.” More recently, in her essay “On Fear,” Mary Ruefle–who compares the negative capability passage to the U. S. Constitution insofar as “it may be interpreted to suit the purposes of a great many people who are at odds with one another”–calls for a decade-long moratorium on the use of the term. And, actually, I think Keats would understand such skeptical positions. A lover of fine phrases, he certainly wanted to create some of his own, and he certainly did with negative capability. But he also could stomach only so much nonsense. Humble brag: in “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald states that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This notion has been repeatedly both interestingly and mistakenly likened to negative capability. But, right or wrong—or, right and wrong—it’s where I stand in relation to the term: I adore you, negative capability—now, please go.

Ian Newman: I hear you, Theune, but maybe we can wait until we’re done with this post before bidding negative capability adieu for good. The thing I find most intriguing about Keats’s notion is the word “irritable.” He defines negative capability as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (my italics). Why should the desire for fact and reason be an irritable endeavor? Why should someone who desires concrete knowledge be someone who is “easily excited to anger or impatience” (OED)? It strikes me that there are some important political contexts for this idea. Recall that Habeas Corpus had been suspended in March 1817—a point Keats refers to in his review of Edmund Kean’s return to the stage, written for The Champion and published on today’s date two hundred years ago. Also in the news were William Hone’s trials for blasphemy, with the final day in court having occurred just the day before Keats began his letter (the issue of The Examiner which Keats sent to his brothers along with his letter included reporting on the cases). “Irritability” conveys a sense of the dogmatism of political demagoguery to which the “Man of Achievement especially in Literature” is offered as an alternative. Rather than being concerned with firm conviction, the essence of poetic beauty lies in its undecided quality. Such an assessment, of course, dismisses political writing’s legitimacy, a truism that became so influential that it is only in recent decades have we been able to see its limitations. But it’s useful to recognize that negative capability was in part a reaction to the fractious irritability of political debate, which was the dominant cultural mode of the day.

Kate Singer: This structure of negative capability that you’ve both located is maybe what has fascinated me most: all boon and bane, acknowledgement of political fracas and rejection, everything possible alternating with the fledgling nothingness of uncertainty, the all in of sympathy coupled with the rejection of our neediness for others, to understand the other. Such vacating potentiality reminds me of Shelley’s vacancy, yet retains a human or at least a brainiac agency–a “capability” that is always moving ahead even while undoing itself. Feminist critics in the 90s like Anne Mellor and Margaret Homans saw such a structure as a selflessness that was nevertheless substantial as a feminine strategy–a gendered genderlessness or perhaps just a negation of that egotistical sublime, a being bottom that could paradoxically let the world in. It is this head loop, this cycle, allowing for a radical openness (even to definitions of itself that may not be warranted), but one without any cloying grabbiness, that always makes me quicken to it.

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