Final Thoughts on NegCap from KLP Editors

RE: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

To quick off our series of posts commemorating and reflecting upon Keats’s negative capability letter, one half of the KLP editorial team (Ian Newman, Kate Singer, and Michael Theune) shared their opening thoughts. Now to wrap things up, the other half of the team (Anne McCarthy, Brian Rejack, and Emily Stanback) will offer some final thoughts! The three of them got together virtually (via group message), and in the spirit of Keatsian epistolarity, we offer here our best attempt to capture something like the 21st-century equivalent of the breezy conversationalism of Keats’s letters.

As you’ll see below, we also wanted to have some space to talk about the ‘Immortal Dinner,’ which occurred on 28 December 1817 (just a day or two after Keats coined negative capability). Keats writes about this shindig in his 5 January 1818 letter, so we’ll hear more about it then. You can read Haydon’s more thorough account here, as told in his 1853 Autobiography (based on Haydon’s contemporaneous diary entries, but expanded later on–1841 for the section on the dinner). Now that the negative capability celebration has come to an end, why not raise a glass in commemoration of the immortal dinner–you know that Keats and Lamb would!

And now Anne, Brian, and Emily will take it away with their convo…


Keats, Negative Capability, and the Pantomime

Brian Bates
Cal Poly State University

RE: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

‘Brown and Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime’.

This sentence has been often overlooked by Keats scholars. Most notably, Walter Jackson Bate’s touchstone ‘Negative Capability’ chapter in his John Keats biography (1963) only briefly mentions Keats’s walk back from the Christmas pantomime before quoting and closely scrutinizing the ‘famous sentences’ from Keats’s letter. Ou Li’s Keats and Negative Capability (2009)—the only twentieth-first-century monograph devoted solely to Keats’s concept—does not include this Christmas pantomime sentence in her opening block quotation from Keats’s letter, which presents the ‘idea itself’ and serves as the ‘basic reference point of the ensuing discussion’. Harry Beaudry—one of the few scholars who has commented on Keats’s pantomime viewing—belittles that Christmas pantomime in The English Theatre and John Keats (1973) and offers a bemused explanation of why Keats would precede his negative capability remarks with a sentence about pantomime: ‘it is a most incongruous circumstance that following this innocuous bit of stage fare Keats and Dilke should become involved in a serious discussion of Shakespeare’s “negative capability”. One can only reflect that Keats’s imagination worked in startling paradoxes at times and could make poetic sense out of incongruity’. Far from an ‘incongruous circumstance’ of Keats ‘at times’ exercising the extremity of his ‘poetic sense,’ I argue that pantomime’s presence in a ‘serious discussion of Shakespeare reveals a fundamental aspect of Keats’s negative capability that has yet to be explored.

The pantomime Keats saw that December 1817 night, and reviewed for The Champion, was Drury Lane’s Harlequin’s Vision; Or, The Feast of the Statue (also billed as Harlequin Libertine). Beyond watching staged pantomime, Keats was privy to the pantomime reviews and pantomime rhetoric of his circle of ‘Cockney’ friends, including William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt, the latter of whom wrote two January 1817 Examiner essays celebrating pantomime’s mass popularity, ‘animal spirit,’ and satirical power. Hunt’s essays, which emphasize pantomime’s satiric playfulness and self-reflexive audience appeal, shine a light on pantomime’s significance for Keats. Pantomime’s characteristic low-to-high and high-to-low transfigurations were pleasurably ridiculous and liberating for Keats, particularly its harlequinade, which reveled in a carnivalesque, tongue-in-cheek space of cultural translation, genre adaptation, character metamorphosis, and physical transformation. Pantomime granted its characters and, by extension, its diverse audience the freedom to flout cultural conventions, upend power structures, challenge elite aesthetics, and reimagine reality. Keats found aesthetic possibility and freedom in pantomime as well as a Harlequin figure whose self-dramatizing, transformative power struck a chord with him as a new poet attempting to define his identity in Leigh Hunt’s ‘Cockney’ circle of friends.


Joseph Grimaldi as Clown, the pantomime character he popularized during the early nineteenth century.


Keats’s description of his epiphany enacts a Harlequin strike that depicts Keats and Dilke as characters caught up in the chaotic workings of a pantomime scene:

Brown & Dilke walked with me & back from the Christmas pantomime. 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 posessed 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—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. (I: p. 193)

Keats’s phrase, ‘at once it struck me’, recalls the action of Harlequin’s wooden sword, which could transform scenes, objects, and people. Keats couches the high sincerity of his transformative epiphany in the playful, thumping language of Hunt’s harlequinade description in the second of his January 1817 pantomime essays: ‘besides being a thing very pleasant in the imagination to handle, [Harlequin’s sword] is excellent at satirical strokes. Lissom as a cane…We always think, when we see it, what precious thumps we should like to give some persons’ (p. 388). In his letter, Keats presents himself as actually being struck by Harlequin’s sword—an informing thump that punctuates his lead in, ‘several things dovetailed in my mind’.

The word ‘dovetailed’ adds a further theatrical, pantomime edge to that strike. In the Romantic period, dovetailed is most often associated with wood-working when a tightly fitted joint is made—a process that Samuel Johnson’s 1785 Dictionary describes more broadly as a ‘form of joining two bodies together, where that which is inserted has the form of a wedge reversed, and therefore cannot fall out’. Dovetailing involves joining together mirror opposites in a fitting space. The OED further identifies a usage particular to the Regency stage. In 1813, The Theatrical Inquisitor used ‘dovetailed’ when sneering at how, in Coleridge’s play Remorse, the ‘various compartments of the dialogue dove-tailed into each other’ while in 1815 The Sporting Magazine deployed the word specifically in relation to the structure of farce: ‘The difficulty of dove-tailing the component parts of the farce into each other’. These two examples of ‘dovetailed’ usages suggest the artificial forcing or over-forcing of parts together. Keats’s ‘dovetailed’ smacks of a similar connotation. His ‘& at once it struck me’ immediately follows the dovetailing of ‘various compartments’ and ‘component parts’ in his thinking, as if the serious, satirical, and farcical actions in a harlequinade scene are suddenly brought together. In this burlesque pantomime context, if Keats has received a Harlequin strike, then ‘dovetailed’ also might pun on the meaning of Columbine’s name. As Leigh Hunt’s first pantomime essay recounts, Columbine’s name ‘signifies the little dove; and such is she in her beauty, her ready flight, her elegance, and her amorousness’ (p. 387). Flitting across the stage of Keats’s mind, Columbine’s energetic flight is followed immediately by a Harlequin strike.

With Harlequin and Columbine in mind, Keats’s ‘not a dispute, but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects’ conjures up another aspect of the harlequinade that Hazlitt satirically deployed in his August 1817 review of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. In mid-sentence, Keats qualifies his characterization of his verbal exchange with Dilke from ‘dispute’ (a disagreement) to ‘disquisition’ (an extended examination and systematic argument). Although ‘disquisition’ might signal the serious turn of their disagreement toward sustained argumentative reasoning, the word also suggests the ridiculous escalation of that exchange into high sincerity and ‘consequitive reasoning,’ which Keats abruptly interrupts by writing ‘& at once it struck me’. The word ‘disquisition’ was used routinely in many early nineteenth-century writings, but Hazlitt’s extensive review of Coleridge’s newest ‘disquisition’ charged this word anew with satirical power. In that review, Hazlitt ridicules (among other things) Coleridge’s letter from a ‘Friend’ at the end of chapter 13, which advises Coleridge not to publish his ‘disquisition’ on the imagination. Hazlitt quips, ‘As Mr. C. has suppressed his Disquisition on the Imagination as unintelligible, we do not think it fair to make any remarks on the 200 pages of prefatory matter, which were printed, it seems, in the present work, before a candid friend apprised him of this little objection to the appearance of the Disquisition itself’ (my italics). That ‘candid Friend’ was actually a masked Coleridge who weighs the importance of those withdrawn pages against the difficulties that they would pose for the general reading public ‘who would have both right and reason to complain of … so abstruse a subject so abstrusely treated … It will be well, if already you have not too much of metaphysical disquisition in your work, though as the larger part of the disquisition is historical, it will doubtless be both interesting and instructive to many’ (my italics, p. 303). Coleridge’s withdrawn ‘disquisition’ is a trick that Hazlitt singles out and derides as Coleridge’s ploy to frustrate and further entice public interest. For Hazlitt, Coleridge’s already overly lengthy published disquisitions, let alone his withdrawn ‘disquisition,’ exemplify his public career as a critic, poet, and lecturer, which has traded on sensational theatricality and abrupt political transformations. Lumping Coleridge’s writings and politics with Robert Southey’s, Hazlitt scoffs: ‘Always pampering their own appetite for excitement, and wishing to astonish others, their whole aim is to produce a dramatic effect, one way or other — to shock or delight their observers; and they are as perfectly indifferent to the consequences of what they write, as if the world were merely a stage for them to play their fantastic tricks on’ (151).

Keats’s ‘disquisition with Dilke’ redounds with knowing self-satire that pokes fun at their ‘consequitive reasoning.’ Keats catches himself in the midst of a Coleridge-like ‘disquisition’ and receives a thump. In this pantomime scene, Keats depicts Dilke and himself like a squabbling Clown (Keats) and Pantaloon (Dilke) caught up in a ‘disquisition’ until a Harlequin strike thumps Keats (Clown), leading to a transformative epiphany. What that dovetailed strike produces for Keats is a new mode of seeing that leads him to speculate about a Shakespearian ‘Man of Achievement’ in contrast with the ‘irritable reaching’ of his character foil Coleridge. Keats, via Hazlitt, holds a satirical mirror up to himself in relation to Coleridge. In the next part of Keats’s letter, this Coleridge shows himself to be an amalgam of Clown and Pantaloon, representing a dubious legitimate power structure.

Keats’s negative capability caricature of Coleridge stages a satirical bodily depiction of him in action as an authoritarian ‘Modern Shakespeare’. Keats contrasts Coleridge’s dramatic gestures—‘Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge’—with the quality of ‘a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare posessed 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’s word ‘Penetralium’ and gestural depiction of Coleridge letting go and reaching likely draw on Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine’s October 1817 review of The Biographia Literaria in which Christopher North ridicules Coleridge’s ‘absurd self-elevation’ and complains that Coleridge ‘cannot put pen to paper without a feeling that millions of eyes are on him,’ which makes him appear ‘as restlessly as any charlatan who ever exhibited on stage’. From North’s perspective, Coleridge will be known in the future as a man ‘who overrated and abused his talents, who saw glimpses of that glory which he could not grasp, who presumptuously came forward to officiate as High Priest at mysteries beyond his ken, and who carried himself as if he had been familiarly admitted into the Penetralia of Nature, when in truth he kept perpetually stumbling at the Threshold’ (My italics, pp. 330-331). Keats’s Coleridge depiction is very like North’s portrayal of Coleridge as a laughable buffoon who postures and stumbles while attempting to ‘grasp’ and mimic the elite power of a ‘High Priest’.

Keats’s caricature of Coleridge ‘irritably reaching’ shows him as ‘incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.’ This agitated Coleridge is unable to appreciate the value of partial truths—‘a fine verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery’—that he has grasped while stumbling near that ‘mystery’. Instead, he lets go (by) and ‘irritably’ reaches ‘after fact and reason’ in order to catch the one unified vision of truth that he seeks. Unlike a Shakespearian ‘Man of Achievement,’ Keats’s Coleridge appears at best like Clown, but more nearly like Pantaloon, the authoritarian figure whose ‘irritable reaching’ after a fleeing Harlequin and Columbine always makes him look buffoonish and demonstrates his incapacity to function in the chaotic world of the harlequinade. Keats’s critique delivers a glancing blow at Coleridge who, as a would-be ‘Contemporary Shakespeare,’ has forced Shakespearian tragedy into an elitist realm through his authoritarian, transcendent overreaching. By contrast, Keats’s Shakespearian ‘Man of Achievement’ remains grounded, ‘content with half knowledge,’ and comfortably at home in the ‘midst of uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts’. Ever the Harlequin of the stage, moving about amidst its pantomime chaos, a Shakespearian ‘Man of Achievement’ revels in ‘uncertainties’ and his own ‘doubts’ while finding that mysterious ‘half knowledge’ is replete with transformative possibilities.

Keats’s penultimate turn near the end of his negative capability letter considers the work of a ‘great poet.’ He contends that ‘This’—Coleridge’s ‘irritable reaching,’ which represents a system of forced synthesis and reconciliation—‘pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’ (I. p. 194). As Keats moves toward the close of his letter, ironic pursuit and high sincerity fold back on each other through the word ‘perhaps’.  Keats’s ‘perhaps’ demonstrates what Steven Jones describes as Keats’s capacity to intermingle ‘ironic detachment’ and ‘sentimental sincerity,’ ‘transcendental buffoonery’ and ‘Romantic transcendence’ (p. 196). ‘Perhaps’ encapsulates the self-reflexive qualities of negative capability because it draws attention back from and redoubles attention to Keats’s statement of how, for a ‘great poet,’ ‘Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’. Keats’s ‘perhaps’ partially undoes his assertive, qualified over-statement, ironically leaving the obliteration of ‘all consideration’ open to further reflection and transformation—perhaps even to another Harlequin strike.


Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson and Engell, James, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Princeton University Press, 1983.

Bate, Walter Jackson, John Keats, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Beaudry, Harry, The English Theatre and John Keats Salzburg, Germany: University of Saltzburg Press, 1973.

Coleridge, S.T. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Critical Heritage, ed. J.R. de Jackson, 2 vols. London: Routledge, 1995.

Cox, Jeffrey and Gamer, Michael, eds., The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, Orchard Park, NY:  Broadview Press, 2003.

Harlequin’s Vision; Or, The Feast of the Statue, in The Huntington Library’s John Larpent Collection, Harlequin Libertine, MssLA, 2004.

Hazlitt, William, The Collected Works of William Hazlitt in Twelve Volumes, eds. A.R. Waller and Arnold Glover, London: J.M. Dent 1904.

Jones, Steven, ‘Turning What Was Once Burlesque into Romantic: Byron’s Pantomimic Satire’, in Satire and Romanticism, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, pp. 169-197.

Keats, John, The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols., Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Li, Ou, Keats and Negative Capability, NY: Continuum Books, 2009.

Slote, Bernice, Keats and the Dramatic Principle, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1958.

Brian Rejack and Michael Theune on Negative Capability’s 200th Birthday

RE: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

While Keats began the negative capability letter back on 21 December, it was on this day (26 December) two hundred years ago that it seems he formulated the idea and the phrase. As he reports to his brothers, Keats was walking back from a performance of a Christmas pantomime at Drury Lane on the evening of 26 December when “at once it struck [him]” what was the nature of literary genius which he aspired toward and which he saw embodied in the work of Shakespeare.

Tomorrow we’ll learn more about the Christmas pantomime and its potential significance in shaping Keats’s thinking (from the final post in our negative capability celebration, by Brian Bates). But for today the KLP presents video of an event hosted by two of the KLP co-founders–Brian Rejack and Michael Theune–which was held at the Normal Public Library in Normal, Illinois back on 16 December. (For those of you not in the know–and why would you be–Normal, IL is so called because the university which resides there began in the mid-19th century as a normal institution: the name used for schools which trained teachers.)

Brian and Mike discuss a wide range of issues related to negative capability, including its appearance in pop cultural realms, its usefulness when wanting to throw some shade at Wordsworth, and, of course, today’s immediate context: the Christmas pantomime. Fittingly for the pantomime context, it helps that Brian and Mike are a couple of clowns!

Contemporary Poets on Negatively Capable Poems, Part 3

RE: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

Today is the last of our three-part series featuring reflections from contemporary poets writing about poems that they find to be particularly negatively capable. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Today’s reflections come from Virginia Bell (on Erika L. Sánchez’s On the Eve of the Tepehuan Revolt, November 15, 1616) Jerry Harp (on Milton’s Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost) and Gary Hawkins (on Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”). Thanks to all the poets who’ve contributed, and thanks to all of you for reading!

Virginia Bell
Loyola University Chicago

At first glance, Erika L. Sánchez’s “On the Eve of the Tepehuan Revolt, November 1616,” looks like the poetic antithesis of “negative capability.” After all, the title references a verifiable event, the war between the Spanish conquistadors and the indigenous Tepehuan that lasted four years and that extended the genocide and so-called pacification of indigenous peoples already underway (through catholic conversion, learning Spanish, and forced labor). The poem references other indigenous groups, the Acaxee and the Xixime, as well as the epidemic of 1576, known as “cocoliztli.” Although written in the persona of a catholic priest, the speaker clearly exposes his own ethnocentrism by referring to the Tepehuan as “sons of dogs” who “howl to stars” and who, like ungrateful children, will violently give you the cold shoulder once they’ve grown (the poem invokes the Spanish saying cria cuervos y te sacarán los ojos—raise crows and they’ll pluck out your eyes). Isn’t this a positively capable political poem, then, a simple condemnation of colonial ideology?

Yes. But. However. Upon re-reading, this persona poem also raises questions and explores productively ambiguous emotions. When the priest utters condescending slurs, he almost always follows or precedes them with details that suggest his own self-doubt, his growing crisis of conscience or destabilization of his worldview:


The poem, it turns out, is a prayer addressed to God, and through shifting syntax, em-dashes, enjambment, and pronouns with ambiguous referents, the speaker could be asking God to pardon the “natives,” or to pardon himself. The indigenous inhabitants may literally have “cocoliztli,” but the priest—and his colleagues—may be mad themselves, may be spiritually lost. It is the “eve” of the revolt and the poem may make the priest predict and anticipate its eruption because of his own fear and growing self-disgust. The poem ends with an unanswered question:

Does he mean that his professed “love” for the salvageable souls of the Tepehuan is actually treacherous, “slithering” like a snake?  Does he mean than his love for God now “slithers” because of his feelings of guilt and shame? Does he invoke the “cross” to construct himself as a martyr in the service of the catholic kingdom? Or does he invoke the cross to condemn the whole enterprise of conquest? Or both? Or all of these emotional states, paradoxically, at once, shifting and endlessly unsettling?

In class discussion with my students at Loyola University Chicago, they offered two further readings of this poem. First, in the context of the whole collection, Lessons on Expulsion (2017), they read the poem as an ironic allegory for the immigration debate in the United States today.  They argued that the inscribed author, Sánchez, may be imagining the priest’s subjectivity and crisis of conscience as an act of hope, as an exercise in imagining the possibility of ideological shift of the part of those who dehumanize “immigrants.” “On the Eve of the Tepehuan Revolt” both pushes back against Keats’s notion of negative capability—facts do indeed matter—and embraces negative capability, even uses it as political strategy as well as aesthetic practice.

My students also argued that the poem enacts the unsettled state of mind of the priest. He uses words and images that suggest splitting, splintering, wavering, branching, and weaving: scissors, tentacles, cypress trees, sapodilla trees, rope, etc.

Many of these images are potentially violent and terrifying; many are instead, or simultaneously, beautiful and generative. The arrangement of lines and stanzas on the page—with shifting justification—further splits the utterances and makes the priest’s voice relentlessly negatively capable. By the end of class, we didn’t enforce consensus around these readings. Instead, we deferred to our own continued reading and re-reading of its many parts. What is reading but a “thanking and thanking / the gobs of darkness”?

Virginia Bell is the author of From the Belly (Sibling Rivalry Press 2012). Her work has appeared in Hypertext MagazineFifth Wednesday Journal, Cider Press Review, Gargoyle, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Rogue Agent, Cloudbank, Spoon River Poetry Review, Calyx, Poet Lore, Pebble Lake Review, and other journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of Pushcart Prize nominations and a Ragdale Foundation residency. She is also an editor with RHINO and an adjunct professor of English at Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, and The Chicago High School for the Arts.

Jerry Harp
Lewis & Clark College

Having written that John Milton’s spirit “never slumbers, / But rolls about our ears, / For ever and for ever” (“On Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair”), Keats—it seems no great stretch to conjecture—would admit the author of Paradise Lost among the negatively capable. Such a capacious and awakened spirit would surely know to dwell “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” The capacity shows nowhere more clearly than in his great epic’s representation of Satan, a figure of perseverance in the face of all but certain defeat. On the one hand, the poet’s express purpose is to “justify the ways of God to men”; on the other, Milton’s Satan struggles for personal integrity and freedom against an implacable authority. The division highlights the poem’s complex texture, for it is both a declaration of Milton’s faith and an exploration of character and rebellion, among other things, by a poet who, after the Restoration, found himself on the losing side of his country’s uprising against monarchical rule. It was because of his ability to dwell convincingly in the space of rebellion and liberty that William Blake recognized Milton as a “true Poet and of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” Obviously, the great Puritan was no worshipper of Old Scratch, but once the character was up and running, he took on characteristics that even the most faithful could find it difficult not to admire. There is in this world seldom a clean distinction between the evil and the good, meaning that the wheat and tares become so intertwined that one cannot eradicate one without endangering the other. Milton created a character to reflect this complex situation.

His Satan is, if nothing else, exquisitely self-aware:

Which way I fly is Hell, myself am Hell,
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.

Hell is not within the bowels of earth but in the depths of self, “myself,” the abyss within that threatens to “devour me” further and further, so that the Hell I am now will seem a Heaven in time to come. This self-consuming abyss of self opens into further deeps that could frighten off even the most stalwart of Freudian analysts. One can catch a hint of tragic heroism here, however perversely realized. Nor does this portrayal of the Father of Lies violate the poet’s high purpose. As Stanley Fish showed in his Surprised by Sin (1967), the figure of Satan again and again draws the reader into virtual complicity in his textual space, highlighting the need for divine grace. Thus reminded over and over of the panache of which Satanic rhetoric is capable, faithful readers are led more and more to open themselves to the divine, who exceeds all rhetoric and style and does not dazzle in the way that Satan does. To create such experience in circumstantial and convincing terms, the poet needed all the negative capability that any human might muster.

Jerry Harp is the author of For Us, What Music? The Life and Poetry of Donald Justice (2010), and co-editor of A Poetry Criticism Reader (2006), both from the University of Iowa Press. His most recent book of poems is Spirit under Construction (NeoPoiesis Press 2017). He teaches at Lewis & Clark College.

Gary Hawkins

I’ve been going back to Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” several times a year for decades—and every time, I’m taken through its many turns of negative capability, made to be in its many shifting positions and uncertainties. Initially, I can’t read the poem today without also thinking about its poet as LeRoi Jones, who would soon become the more revolutionary Amiri Baraka of “Black Art” and later the incendiary poet of “Somebody Blew Up America.” All that pressure and duration, that rage-come-requiem is there in the title: this is just a preface to an extended, sorrowful, mortal referendum. The poem, then, is really three poems—three tonally very different responses that each challenge my assumptions of what a “preface to a twenty volume suicide note” might be. First, it’s a breezy, discursive account that turns foreboding when those mundane vignettes (the dog walk, the commute) spin off a foreboding, one-line proclamation: “Things have come to that.” Then, we’re within the poet’s nightly, recursive act of meaning-making, where even counting holes in the sky forms a beautiful, comforting, ordering image—and this, too, pulled short, with a non-sequitur summary lamentation: “Nobody sings anymore.” So, then, when the final consideration of this “preface” holds a sustained scene of the speaker’s daughter at bedtime, herself calling out in a note of prayer, there’s no way to assign that final gesture: petition, praise, or lament—we’ll never know this mystery.

Gary Hawkins writes poems, writes in prose on poetry, draws (lately flora and fauna of the Southern Appalachia and bottles of old medicine), and works in letterpress, including editing and producing Croquet, an occasional letterpress broadside delivered as a postcard. His debut collection of poetry, Worker, appeared from Main Street Rag in 2016.

Contemporary Poets on Negatively Capable Poems, Part 2

Re: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

Today is the second of a three-part series featuring reflections from contemporary poets writing about poems that they find to be particularly negatively capable. Read Part 1 here. Today’s reflections come from Matt Hart (on Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant”), Shara McCallum (on Sylvia Plath’s “Morning Song”) and Jennifer Militello (on E. E. Cummings’s “my father moved through dooms of love”).

Matt Hart
Art Academy of Cincinnati

ALIVE FOR AN INSTANT WITHOUT ANY IRRITABLE REACHING: Negative Capability and Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant”

For a long time now I’ve had this weirdo inkling that the most important phrase in Keats’ Negative Capability letter is “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” In particular, it’s that word “irritable” that I always come back to and that feels so brilliantly necessary. The implication is that while great works of literature put us, as Keats says, in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts,” they short-circuit the discomfort and irritability that often accompanies them, making them instead opportunities for revelry, possibility, enlightenment and joy.

No poem I can think of does this as wildly as Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant,” which has always struck me as one which, as Keats says, “makes all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.” To put it simply, Koch’s poem has a lot of uncertainty, Mystery and doubt in it, but it doesn’t have an irritable bone in its body.  It is in fact very happy to catalogue all that which is not irritable. The poem begins this way:

I have a bird in my head and a pig in my stomach
And a flower in my genitals and a tiger in my genitals
And a lion in my genitals and I am after you but I have a song in my heart
And my song is a dove
I have a man in my hands I have a woman in my shoes
I have a landmark decision in my reason
I have a death rattle in my nose I have summer in my brain water

What’s marvelous in this excerpt is the MARVEL in this excerpt, which is the engine of the poem. The speaker comes on (and I mean both that he turns on like a lightbulb and like an amplifier cranked to 11) with a bird in his head and a pig in his stomach, and everything begins immediately to fly (even the pig). As such, the poem is a celebration of momentousness and instantaneousness, compulsion and provocation, as if right before the poem began some customs official at the entrance to the weirdest country ever said, “And do you have anything to declare?” And in response the speaker of the poem can’t help but give up the ghost in a totally run-on, effusion-occasion of VOLUME. What’s the occasion? Being alive. Alive how? Total zoo! The poem IS a matter of FACT, generously and disjunctively giving itself (in Frank O’Hara’s phrase) “as variously as possible,” but it’s fundamental mode is the run-on list. “I am Lord Byron I am Percy Shelley I am Ariosto/ I eat the bacon I went down the slide I have a thunderstorm inside I will never hate you,” Koch insists, radically-amiably. (Imagine bringing this poem into a poetry workshop and everybody going ape-shit trying to resolve all the nonsense into something more than a joyous apparatus of operatic acrobatics. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t shop. This poem “obliterates all consideration.” It doesn’t need a resolution. It IS (a) resolution. We don’t consume it. It consumes us.)

However, even more than that, the poem’s wild sense of inclusion even extends into the realm of total contradiction:

I have a knocking woodpecker in my heart and I think I have three souls
One for love one for poetry and one for acting out my insane self
Not insane but boring but perpendicular but untrue but true

And while this urge to hold “disagreeables” in emotional suspension together, epitomizes the poem’s impulses, it’s not the only way the poem manifests “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts.” There are in fact ten questions (and marked as such) in the poem’s relatively short thirty lines. For instance, “Who is it that I wish to astonish?” “Has nature set out to be a great entertainer/Obviously not A great reproducer? A Great Nothing?” Strangely, there’s a sense in which the poem’s querulousness is as exclamatory as anything else it offers up. It’s not about answers, it’s about the emergency to “come clean” through the expression of the mess that life is. And thus, all doubts are dispatched (rather handily) with further declaration and disjunction rather than response. Anyway, who could get a word in edgewise?

In the poem’s final lines all of this declaration and doubt, contradiction and effusion, come to a fabulously turbulent head when the speaker wonders aloud, taking a much needed breath:

But how can this maelstrom be appealing? do you like menageries? my god
Most people want a man! So here I am
I have a pheasant in my reminders I have a goshawk in my clouds
Whatever is it which has led all these animals to you?
A resurrection? or maybe an insurrection? an inspiration?
I have a baby in my landscape and I have a wild rat in my secrets from you.

The only end stop in the poem comes right at the end of the poem, and it’s a total mystery, seeing as how 1) even the grand finale is full of “secrets” (Oh yes!), and 2) it has a “wild rat” in them. That final complete bit of syntax, “I have a wild rat in my secrets from you” is actually quite bizarre, even for this poem. Does Koch mean to suggest by “secrets from you” the “secrets I keep from you”? If so, it’s a confounding elision, since he’s already seemingly given everything up (including the wild rat, which is in the secrets). What else could fit in this clown car? Could there possibly be anything left to disclose (notice the “lose” in “disclose”)? There is no closure (nor is there any loss) and that’s why the party never stops (until it does, but we are not worried or irritated about that—things begin and end, that is all).

We might, however, also imagine those secrets at the end of the poem as ones the speaker gets from “you,” since the speaker himself seemingly isn’t holding anything back. This begs the question of “you,” who you is/are (and by extension who we are in the grand scheme of things). Life itself? Death? Perhaps the final line’s big reveal (that somehow there are still secrets) is the biggest surprise of all in the poem, i.e. the “you” is the poem’s shadow, the “thou” that does not speak, and that’s where the spark for art always is—the unsayable, unknowable, not-said—we can’t quite wrap our minds around. It’s the messy, unpredictable spark which becomes somehow wildly more intense, even as it flames out, “alive for an instant” / “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Matt Hart is the author of seven books of poems, including Radiant Companion (Monster House Press 2016). Hart’s poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous print and online journals, including The Academy of American Poets online, Big Bell, ColdfrontColumbia Poetry Review, Harvard ReviewJam Tarts Magazine, jubilatKenyon Review online, Lungfull!, and POETRY, among others. His awards include a Pushcart Prize, a 2013 individual artist grant from The Shifting Foundation, and fellowships from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he is Associate Professor in Creative Writing and the Chair of Liberal Arts at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He plays guitar and shouts in the band NEVERNEW:

Shara McCallum
Penn State University

On “Morning Song,” Motherhood, & Being “Negatively Capable”

“I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand.” How these lines from Plath’s “Morning Song” stayed with me, ricocheting in my ears in many moments during my early years of motherhood. They do still. Motherhood, for many, brings with it polarities: extremes of joy and dejection; a sense of seeing one’s purpose and meaninglessness at once, of staring down the proximity of life to death and facing the mystery of existence.

The opening line of the poem, “Love set you going like a fat, gold watch,” is unforgettable for its quality of sound (those stresses at the end of the line are emphatic) and image. In the way the music and metaphors combine throughout the poem to do, the line brings forth the visceral and at times vexed nature of the situation of the poem. The poem begins with a birth, but ultimately concerns itself less with the child born and more with the woman-now-transformed-to-mother at the poem’s center. It is her “song” of ambivalence, not the infant’s more purely hopeful one gestured toward in the poem’s closing image, we hear loudest. The dominant figure in the poem is perhaps not even the mother but rather Plath’s evocation of the state in which the mother comes to reside following the child’s arrival: motherhood.

As the poem reveals, motherhood is accompanied by hours that feel like years and years that feel like minutes. It is accompanied by a form of love difficult to parse but often expressed through words like duty and sacrifice in the face of what feels like vast and unending need. It is accompanied by the wish at times to be free of the role of being ever-present for someone else’s wants and, paradoxically, the desire to remain inside of piercing instants that are inextricable from that role—hearing your child babbling from her crib, “the clear vowels rising like balloons.”

Plath’s unforgettable and frequently surreal images throughout the poem give body to Keats’s concept of negative capability: the ability to reside within paradox, to be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” But the mother in the poem is the one of whom negative capability is demanded. The duality in the line “I’m no more your mother,” isolated for a reason, is resounding in this regard. Is she sounding a momentary desire to abandon the role? Or, as the lines that follow it suggest, is she to exist like the “cloud distilled,” both clarified and erased, by the “wind’s (child’s) hand”? Inside the rotation of these questions, Plath’s truths of motherhood and of being a mother “rise” to the surface.

Originally from Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of five books of poetry published in the US and UK, most recently Madwoman. She is also the author of numerous personal essays, as well as essays on poets and poetics. After fourteen years as Director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, she now teaches at Penn State University.

Jennifer Militello
New England College

“My father moved through dooms of love” by E.E. Cummings asks to be read with the instinct, not the intellect. Its moves are secretive and subversive; it creates an underworld of caves to be explored while lit only by a headlamp, as one holds one’s breath, while the movement through it, as survival in the face of danger, provides a rush of adrenaline.

The poem successfully resists attempts to render it in literal explanation. If we relied on the logical, if we resisted mystery and the resonance of suggestion, “my father moved through dooms of love” would mean nothing. It is unapologetic, confident in its sustained presence, rooted in the lizard brain. It seeks the pre-lingual, anti-language real, a feeling that hits like the touching of skin or the seeing of color, experience that cannot be explained simply because it is so deeply and inherently understood.

Cummings’ poem asks us to suspend our literary disbelief for 68 lines. And yet it is somehow exactly right.

The mystery of the poem is strung together by music; trust in what is being said is first created by sound. Phrasings, rhyme scheme, and rhythms beat with our hearts, dance us around a fire to their drum. The result is an increasing tension and supernatural expansion, like stepping out onto an open body of water, not so we can sink, but so that we can float.

The pairings of the poems are unexpected and strange, unorthodox in ways that facilitate comparisons along inexact latitudes. A “doom” is big and dreadful, earthshaking, negative, impactful. It has the sound of thunder or an explosion, but here it parallels love. Sorrow is “true as bread.” Is bread true? It is a base food, a religious symbol; it is simple, it is honest in its presentation. It rises cleanly from yeast to an airy, spongy, dry perfection.

The poem resists our desire for tidy pairings and easy movements, and that discomfort opens up a slice of space in the mind that allows reinvention and new perspective. We fall into the gap unfastened between two concepts in order to see them more fully, like squinting in order to focus or looking to the side of a star to see its light.

The poem’s unique logic also embraces abstraction to fashion a poem that serves as a continent rather than a grain of sand. Phrases like “through sames of am through haves of give,” and “this motionless forgetful where / turned at his glance to shining here” offer large, unpinned concepts that also serve to liberate associative space. There is much specificity in the poem, but it is tempered or ruled by this ambition of purpose and vision.

To excavate truths that are otherwise too expansive for language’s limited net, we must remember that language is a construct. We need to go beneath words, using words to do so, which may seem ironic, but which lies at the very core of what poetry actually is.

Jennifer Militello is the author of A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016), called “positively bewitching” by Publishers WeeklyBody Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), named one of the top poetry books of 2013 by Best American Poetry, and Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award. Her poems have been published widely in such journals as American Poetry ReviewThe Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares, and anthologized in Best New Poets and Poem-a-Day: 365 Poems for Every Occasion. She teaches in the MFA program at New England College. More at

Contemporary Poets on Negatively Capable Poems, Part 1

Re: Keats’s 21-27 December letter to George and Tom Keats

Over the next three days the KLP will feature reflections from contemporary poets on poems that they find to be particularly negatively capable. Today’s reflections come from Katy Didden (on Vievee Francis’s “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way in”), Anna Leahy (on Anna Swir’s “Woman Unborn” (translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan)), and Murat Nemet-Nejat (on Orhan Veli (multiple poems)).

Read Part 2 here
Read Part 3 here

Katy Didden
Ball State University

Negative Capability as Negative Space: Vievee Francis’s “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way in

Two weeks after I heard about this project to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Keats’s letter, my students and I read “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way In” by Vievee Francis. In the poem, the speaker testifies to an experience of being invaded by swiftlets (small birds in the swift family) that “settled along [her] cage,” “Flew into the emptiness of [her],” and then “nested lickety-split in [her] walls.” In the beginning, the speaker admits her desire to harm the swiflets, “to take their tiny frames/ and snap their necks.” Maybe more than anything, this moment, when the speaker admits to villainy, might demonstrate what I think Keats meant by Shakespeare’s negative capability—something about the the way in which Shakespeare brings humanity’s violent impulses to light, from Shylock’s “The villainy you teach me I will execute,” to Richard III’s “I am determined to prove a villain / and hate the idle pleasures of these days.” What makes Francis’s lines so effective is the tone, which is not apologetic or even confessional, but more matter-of-fact. In the next line, she dares the reader to admit to the same brutal impulse, to acknowledge that this feeling is an indelible part of human nature: “Tell me / you haven’t wanted to stifle what hovers / dumb before your heart?” Because she imagines snapping their necks and does not, we get a fuller picture of the speaker—a comprehensive look at self and shadow. In this way, I think negative capability relates to the artist’s ability to perceive negative space—to shift seeing so that the shadow takes shape, and can therefore be regarded; to add dimension to what’s seen. Her action not to harm the swifts becomes, in sharp contrast to her initial impulse, more persuasive and remarkable.

To see negative space is also a means of making what should be impossible, material. This is essentially the work of figurative language. Like Keats does in “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” where he builds realms of gold out of the emotion of reading,until Homer launches him to a peak in Darien, Francis makes this phenomenon of being inhabited by swiflets seem more real for the way she situates them in one body that becomes a series of hollows, from a cage, to a cave, to a tomb (“from which the stone has been rolled”). In a sense, she has reversed the artist’s looking, and made what is material into a space of shadows, “I have never been whole, / so there was room.” Where Keats’s poem builds to a crescendo with the speaker adopting the posture of a discoverer (one who colonizes), Francis’s speaker calls out from the position of the occupied, and the final move is a gesture of Ovidian transfiguration, where the speaker, like Philomela, becomes the bird, “wind-borne,” and leaves human language behind for the percussive code of wings, using a word that in our language is a mark of violence, but in Francis’s new patterning becomes the means of taking flight:

wings within beating beating beatingbeating

beatingbeating beating


Katy Didden is the author of The Glacier’s Wake (Pleiades Press, 2013). She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, and her poems and essays have appeared in journals such as Poetry Northwest, The Kenyon Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Sewanee Review, Ecotone, 32 Poems, and Poetry. She is currently Assistant Professor at Ball State University. More info at
Click here for info Vievee Francis’s book, Forest Primeval, from Northwestern University Press.

Anna Leahy

Is there anything that remains as mysterious to us as our own individual nonexistence? Though I know that I was born and didn’t exist before then, few ideas challenge the limits of my thinking as much as trying to imagine not being. Hence, my dread of death.

In her poem “Woman Unborn,” Anna Swir ponders existence before having existed. The poem begins five minutes before the speaker’s birth, then ten, then an hour. Swir writes, “I go back, / I run / into my minus life.” The poem feels methodical because we understand reverse chronology, as the speaker travels back years, “through epochs / in which there was no me.” The speaker dwells, at least fleetingly, in the experience of what she might have been in other times, a spinster, an unloved wife, a water bearer. As methodical and clear as the sentences are, this going back in time relinquishes reason and embraces uncertainty. The poem—this thought experiment—urges the reader to consider, what might it have been like, this world without me? And without me—without my consciousness, my imagination—how can I possibly imagine the world?

Vladimir Nabokov begins his memoir, Speak, Memory, with a similar notion: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Swir moves into that dark, eternal uncertainty. There, she finds, in a combination of playful negations not unlike those in the second stanza of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” that “nonexistence so much resembles immortality.” If to live is to be mortal, then to not exist is to be immortal. But, wait, to be immortal, one must live and go on living. No, to be immortal, one must not be subject to death; the immortal experiences eternity. Of course, if one does not exist, one is nothing at all. Without that crack of light that is an individual’s life, can there be, as Swir suggests, “a reverse of life”?

Before Adam and Eve, “it’s dark,” and there’s nowhere—and no time—left to go. That’s where “nonexistence dies already / with the trite death of mathematical fiction.” Even then, at the edge of this conceptual abyss—at the beginning of time and with the curious already—that’s too much logic. Is nonexistence erased by existence? The poem makes one more turn of time back on itself: “As trite as the death of my existence would have been / had I been really born.” She was born, of course, as we all have been. For all of us, then, death remains the most pedestrian of mysteries, illuminated only by our knowledge that we did not always exist.

Anna Leahy is the author of the poetry collections Aperture and Constituents of Matter and the nonfiction book Tumor. Her poems and essays appear widely, and her essays won the Ninth Letter Nonfiction Award and the Dogwood Grand Prize in 2016. See more at
Click here for info on Anna Swir’s book,
Talking to My Bodyfrom Copper Canyon Press.

Murat Nemet-Nejat

Negative Capability and Orhan Veli’s Infinite Quietness[1]

To me negative capability expresses itself in two ways: first, through a reticence to use words, a practice to withhold, an extreme, radical economy of words; the second, through the ability to wait, not to act, wait for the moment the reveal itself, its Zen reality. In both senses, the Turkish poet Orhan Veli is a supreme possessor of negative capability.

You can pass by
All these houses
By streetcar,
But your house
Is further away.[2]

The breathtaking power of this poem derives  from what is not there, the endless yearning beyond tiny bits of visible facts: “these houses.”

Along with the economy of what is presented, there is the bareness of language, a simple statement that a pubescent child or a declarative sentence a foreign student learning how to speak English may utter: “You can pass by all these houses by streetcar, but your house is further away. ”

In the poetic manifesto to the “Garip” movement In Turkey in 1941, of which he was one of the leaders, Veli says, “In order to rescue ourselves from the stifling effects of the literatures which have dictated and shaped our tastes and judgments for too many years, we must dump overboard everything that those literatures have taught us. [I] wish it were possible to dump language itself.”[3] Devoid of rhetorical excess and even metaphors, only facts, a series of ordinary acts: a radical reticence:

The Guest

I was bored yesterday towards evening;
Two packages of cigarettes didn’t do me a thing;
I tried to write, no good either;
For the first time in years I played the violin,
Walked around,
Kibitzed watching people play backgammon,
Sang songs off key,
Caught flies—a boxful.
Finally, damn it,
I came here to see you.[4]

In Orhan Veli, negative capability is often a state of boredom (or melancholy or restlessness) that advances towards stasis—as facts, objects in the outside world emerge in their own language, and the ego loses the consciousness of a self and appears to itself, newly, as a guest.

In his poetry, negative capability reveals “the isness of is,” stripped of frills, its underground rhythms and its radiant beauty:

How beautiful the color of tea
In the morning
In the fresh air.
How beautiful
The fresh air
How beautiful the young boy
How beautiful the tea
Is. [5]

Veli’s “boxful of flies” and Keats’ inviolate and elusive “unravished bride of quietness” of “The Grecian Urn” belong to the same infinite universe where time reaches a standstill, the space of negative capability.

Poet, translator from Turkish and essayist, Murat Nemet-Nejat’s recent work includes the poems Animals of Dawn (Talisman, 2016), The Spiritual Life of Replicants (Talisman, 2011), the collaboration with the poet Standard Schaefer “Alphabet Dialogues/Penis Monologues”; the translations Seyhan Erözçelik’s Rosestrikes and Coffee Grinds (Talisman, 2010), the republication by Green Integer Press of Ece Ayhan’s A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies (2015). He is the editor of Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry, (Talisman House, 2004). He is presently working on the poems Io’s Song, Camels and Weasels, and a collection of translations from the Turkish poet Sami Baydar. The Spiritual Life, Animals of Dawn, Camels and Weasels and Io’s Song are part of a seven-part poem The Structure of Escape.

[1] Orhan Veli (1914-1950).

[2] I, Orhan Veli, Poems by Orhan Veli, translated by Murat Nemet-Nejat (New York City: New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1989), p. 112.

[3] I, Orhan Veli, p. 9.

[4] I, Orhan Veli, p. 88.

[5] I, Orhan Veli, p. 105.

Negative Capability in the Wild

Suzanne Barnett
Francis Marion University

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

I don’t know how to confront a closed mind.
I keep thinking Keats but I don’t have enough
‘Negative Capability’, whatever that means.
– from ‘Dear Mom’ by Daniel Bosch[1]

In my contribution to the forthcoming collection Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives (under contract with Liverpool University Press), I consider how Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000) offers a radically different reading of negative capability than we’ve seen in most twentieth- and twenty-first-century readings of that slippery concept. Towards this end, I compiled a list of recent references and allusions to negative capability in both popular and critical texts, some of which are listed below. By the end of the twentieth century, negative capability had become so firmly entrenched in popular culture—yet so hazily defined—that in Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, Diane Keaton’s character claims that a featureless steel cube ‘was perfectly integrated, and it had a marvelous kind of negative capability’, and viewers read that obfuscation as cultural shorthand for critical jargon.

Negative capability has appeared recently in discussions of climate change (Deborah Lilley[2]), in political philosopher Roberto Unger’s theories of false necessity and formative context,[3] and, in a development that aspiring apothecary Keats might have appreciated, within the emerging field of narrative medicine (Terence E. Holt[4] and Delese Wear[5]). It lends its name to an independent press founded in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama and its associated journal, collections of critical essays, at least one play, and seemingly innumerable blog posts. Dozens of poems with ‘Negative Capability’ in their titles or works that reference the idea have appeared in print in the last few decades alone, including Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Mind Writing Slogans’ (The Poetry Ireland Review No. 43/44, Special North American Issue (Autumn-Winter, 1994), pp. 17-20), Cort Day’s ‘A Little Song About Negative Capability’ (Agni No. 49 (1999), p. 151), Suzanne Buffam’s ‘On Negative Capability’ (The American Poetry Review Vol. 39, No. 5 (September/October 2010), p. 30), Charlotte Matthews’s ‘Negative Capability’ (Mississippi Review Vol. 41, No. 1/2, The 2013 Prize Issue (Summer 2013), p. 80), William Kumbier’s ‘Negative Capability’ (The Centennial Review Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1994), pp. 132-3), and Paul Nelson’s ‘Negative Capability’ (Ploughshares Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1997/1998), pp. 139-41), Margaree Little’s ‘On Negative Capability’ (The American Poetry Review Vol. 36, No. 4 (July/August 2007), p. 12). Other recently published poems that include the phrase ‘negative capability’ include Lance Larson’s ‘Sit Ups, with Mr. Johnny Keats’ (Salmagundi No. 160/161 (Fall 2008-Winter 2009), pp. 164-5), Albert Goldbarth’s ‘Keats’s Phrase’ (Poetry Vol. 199, No. 5 (February 2012), pp. 404-5), and Daniel Bosch’s ‘Dear Mom’, part of which appears in the epigraph above. In ‘Reflections on Teaching Playwrighting [sic] in the Schools’, Jonathan Levy explicitly equates negative capability with sympathy and claims that ‘a novelist or poet may have this ability. A playwright must have it’.[6]

Back of The Urinals’ LP Negative Capability. . .Check it Out!

Negative capability is also represented in contemporary music from a variety of genres, including the albums Negative Capability…Check It Out! (1997) by the post-punk band the Urinals and A Negative Capability (2000) by singer-songwriter Fancie. “Negative Capability” is also the title of a 2003 song by the noise-pop band Medicine. The 1996 album American Bard by Ed Sanders, founding member of freak-folk band The Fugs (whose oeuvre also contains musical settings of several of William Blake’s poems) includes a song entitled ‘The Keats Negative Capability Letter’ in which Sanders recites Keats’s words over minimalistic guitar accompaniment. Negative capability has recently been featured on television: In ‘The Locked Room’, the third episode of the first season of the HBO noir drama True Detective, negative capability is quietly invoked as a reason for Rust Cohle’s (the character played by Matthew McConaughey) remarkable ability to coerce confessions from suspects by exuding empathy until they practically beg to confess their crimes. When asked for his secret, Cohle demurs: ‘Oh, I never really found it that hard. You just look at somebody and think like they think, negative capability’.[7]

Ou Li notes that by the 1980s negative capability had become so commonplace that it began to appear in criticism of authors other than Keats (as in William V. Spanos’s ‘Charles Olson and Negative Capability’ or Beth Lau’s ‘Jane Austen and John Keats: Negative Capability, Romance and Reality’[8]) and became ‘part of the general education of literature, beginning to enjoy a more or less established status’.[9] In recent years, negative capability has even wound its way into legal scholarship; in A Modern Legal Ethics: Adversary Advocacy in a Democratic Age, Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits posits a framework for legal ethics that emphasizes the lawyer’s passivity and invokes negative capability as a model for client engagement. In his review of Markovits in Georgetown Law Faculty Publications, David Luban defines negative capability as the quality ‘according to which the poet’s art lies in suppressing her own viewpoint to permit the subject of the poem to shine forth’ (p. 4). According to W. Bradley Wendel,[11] Markovits claims that:

The lawyer’s role must, therefore, be constructed in such a way as to maximize the possibility for affective, transformative participation in the political process, which at the retail level primarily occurs through adjudication of litigated disputes. It follows that a lawyer ought to be a kind of conduit to participation, enabling clients to be as directly involved as possible. In order to do this, a lawyer must possess the virtue of ‘negative capability’. ‘Negative capability’ means effacing one’s own personal beliefs about the justice of the causes of one’s clients, serving literally as a mouthpiece for clients’ positions.[12]

In Markovits’s permutation, then, negative capability means that an individual becomes a mere ‘conduit,’ an belief-less ‘mouthpiece’ for his or her client. Barton Beebe, the John M. Desmarais Professor of Intellectual Property Law at New York University, argues in ‘Search and Persuasion in Trademark Law’[13] that ‘Trademark law is arguably the most difficult of the intellectual property laws to contemplate […] because it requires a form of what John Keats called ‘negative capability,’ the capability, more specifically, to think through the consumer and see the marketplace only as the consumer sees it’ (2022).[14] Or, in other words, What Would John Keats Buy?

These references are just a taste of the many ways that negative capability has been found “in the wild” in recent years. In my forthcoming essay, I consider how in these modern permutations of negative capability, ‘doubt’ gives way to ‘patience’ before it eventually arrives at ‘empathy’ and how Pullman returns in His Dark Materials to a renewed skepticism about the role of the self in poetic creation, so be sure to check out Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives for more on negative capability in contemporary literature and culture.


[1] Agni, No. 40 (1994), pp. 159-60.

[2] Deborah Lilley, ‘Theories of Certain Uncertainty: Climate Change and Negative Capability’, symploke, Volume 21, Numbers 1-2 (2013), pp. 97-108.

[3] Roberto Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy (London: Verso, 2004).

[4] Terence E. Holt, ‘Narrative Medicine and Negative Capability,’ Literature and Medicine Volume 23, Number 2, Fall 2004, pp. 318-33.

[5] Delese Wear, ‘Toward Negative Capability: Literature in the Medical Curriculum’, Curriculum Inquiry Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 169-84.

[6] Jonathan Levy, ‘Reflections on Teaching Playwrighting in the Schools’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 26: 3 (Autumn 1992), p. 105 (italics in original). Dan Simmons makes a similar claim that negative capability ‘remains … a required precursor to empathy in life and in art’ (p. 402) because it ‘allow[s] the best of writers to become skinwalkers and shapeshifters and to create characters more real and memorable than many of the living, breathing human beings we meet in our lifetime’; he then blames a lack of negative capability for the two-dimensionality of so many characters in contemporary speculative fiction (p. 414). (‘Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers: the Writer’s Curse of Negative Capability’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 8: 4 [1997], pp. 400, 405.)

[7] ‘The Locked Room’. True Detective. HBO. 26 Jan. 2014. Television.

[8] William V. Spanos, ‘Charles Olson and Negative Capability: A Phenomenological Interpretation’. Contemporary Literature Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 38-80. Beth Lau, ‘Jane Austen and John Keats: Negative Capability, Romance and Reality’, Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 55, (2006), pp. 81-110. Lau defines negative capability as ‘the ability to negate one’s own personality, project oneself into the thoughts and feelings of others, and remain open to a variety of points of view” (84); she associates this quality with Austen, whom she claims ‘best exemplifies’ it (86).

[9] Ou Li, Keats and Negative Capability. Bloomsbury Literary Studies Series. New York: Continuum, 2001, p. 19.

[10] Princeton University Press, 2008.

[11]  In ‘Methodology and Perspective in the Theory of Lawyers’ Ethics: a Response to Professors Woolley and Markovits’ (The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Fall 2010), pp. 1011-19).

[12] Wendel, p. 1016.

[13] Michigan Law Review Vol. 103, No. 8, 2005 Survey of Books Relating to the Law (Aug., 2005), pp. 2020-72.

[14] Ibid, p. 2022.

The Negative Capability StoryMap

The KLP Editors
Keats University (JK!)

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

To start off our extended commemoration of negative capability, first take a deep dive into what Keats was up to in mid-to-late December 1817. Turns out he was pretty busy! You can read the StoryMap as embedded below, or, for a better visual experience, open in a new window with this link.

**By the way, StoryMapJS is a great tool developed by the kind folks at the Northwestern University Knight Lab. Check it out and give it a try yourself!**

Click here to view in a separate window (which may provide better dimensions)

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.

Letter #37: To George and Tom Keats, 21-27 [?] December 1817

1817 has been a big year for Keats. He saw his first book published, and finished a draft of his second. Understandably, after completing Endymion on 28 November he takes a well-deserved break from poetry for a bit. He puts off copying and revising his draft, which will lead him to write a contrite note to his new publisher, John Taylor, on 10 January apologizing for being delinquent. It seems Keats also doesn’t do much writing of new poetry. The only surviving poem which we can reliably place in December 1817 is the aptly-titled “In drear nighted December.” But Keats is not resting on his laurels. As we saw in the 22 November letter to Bailey, Keats is doing some of his most insightful thinking about poetry and the nature of poetic identity. And he continues doing so during December. In the last letter of 1817, just a few days from the end of the year, Keats really pulls out all the stops. TIME. FOR. NEGATIVE. CAPABILITY.

Detail of John Jeffrey’s transcript of Keats’s 21-27 Dec 1817 letter. MS Keats 3.9 (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Is there a more famous phrase in Keats’s correspondence? The KLP does not subscribe to a consensus answer to the question, but to not put it in the top three would surely be heresy. Given the momentousness of the occasion, and given that the negative capability letter spans the course of about a week, we’ll be posting negative-capability-related material everyday from now until 27 December. Here’s the negcap sched:

21 December: TWO features! Some opening reflections on negative capability from the KLP editorial team; and a negative capability StoryMap narrating (and mapping) the activities and places we can reliably associate with Keats during the days before and around the writing of the letter.

22 December: Suzanne Barnett writes about negative capability’s wide dispersion through different realms of culture, ranging from pop music to legal theory.

23, 24, 25 December: contemporary poets identify and reflect on poems that they see embodying some aspect(s) of negative capability. In three flights, for your intellectual imbibition!

26 December: video from a recent event at the Normal, IL Public Library, hosted by two of the KLP co-founders, Brian Rejack and Mike Theune: ‘John Keats & the 200th Birthday of Negative Capability.’ There was birthday cake. The KLP cannot verify this fact, but we’re pretty sure not too many other people had negative capability cakes made in honor of the bicentennial. But the KLP has negative cake-ability!

Negative Cake-ability!

27 December: Brian Bates writes about the significance of the pantomime to an understanding of negative capability (Keats formulates the idea when walking back from seeing the Drury Lane pantomime with Charles Brown and Charles Dilke). It’s one of the letter’s most overlooked contexts, and Bates does an excellent job rectifying that neglect.

When all is said and done, we’ll also have a page dedicated to negative capability, where you can find links to these materials and additional resources.