“but here I am talking like a Madman”: Keats’s Capability for Negativity

Michael Theune
Illinois Wesleyan University

Re: Keats’s 10, 11 May 1817 letter to Haydon

Mid-May, 1817. Negative capability is still over seven months away. But, of course, according to the oft-told story of negative capability, the substance behind the term begins to take shape in a number of letters Keats writes prior to the December, 1817 letter to his brothers, including, most famously, the November 22 letter to Benjamin Bailey in which Keats discusses his “Humility and capability of submission” and theorizes the subtle yet pervasive power of “Men of Genius” (I, 184).

Aspects of the May 10, 11 letter certainly have been integrated into the story of negative capability. After all, many of the spring letters’ subjects and themes overlap with those of the December letter. There’s the overt Bardolatry: Shakespeare has become the “good Genius” and, hopefully, Keats’s “Presider” (I, 142). Additionally, there’s the enactment of this adoration through quotation, in both letters, of Antony and Cleopatra (one of Rollins’s notes to the negative capability letter reminds us that the exclamation “in sooth la!!” near the close of the letter comes from Antony and Cleopatra, IV.iv.8 (I, 194)). There’s also the presence of Hazlitt. In the negative capability letter, he is invoked via his term “gusto”; in the letter to Haydon, he is named and noted for being another lover of the Bard: Keats states, “I am very near agreeing with Hazlit that Shakespeare is enough for us” (I, 143), though, according to Rollins, the precise source for this particular insight from Keats is unknown.

There are, as well, as I will show, some deeper connections between the May letter to Haydon and the negative capability letter, and, as a result, I will argue, the letter to Haydon needs to be as closely considered as, say, the November 22 letter to Bailey for what it has to say about negative capability. Of course, it so far has not been considered in this way. This in itself is an interesting fact, and so I’ll use this response as an opportunity to think a bit about that, focusing on the ways that the letter to Haydon challenges some cherished ideas about Keats and negative capability.

Not only does Keats’s May letter to Haydon share subjects and themes with the negative capability letter, but it also shares some argumentative dynamics. In both letters, the genius of Shakespeare is praised in contrast to the work of a lesser poet: Hunt or Coleridge. The ordering of the argument is different in the two letters: Coleridge seems to be something of an afterthought in the negative capability letter while the critique of “Selfdeluder” Hunt serves as the occasion for the turn to considering the greatness of Shakespeare (I, 143). And yet, in each instance, Shakespeare interestingly arrives as a kind of eruptive epiphany from the midst of what is or might become a longer discourse, whether it be the “disquisition” with Dilke when “at once” the notion of negative capability happens to strike Keats (I,193) or the “long Confab” from which Keats manages to “desist” in order to turn his attentions to the satisfying plenitude of Shakespeare (I, 143).

In addition to the similarities of subjects and dynamics, there is one important additional link between this letter of May, 1817, and the negative capability letter: historical circumstance. The two letters were linked by John Dewey in “The Live Creature and ‘Etherial Things,’” the second chapter of his Art as Experience, which would inspire the work of the most important theorist of negative capability, Walter Jackson Bate. Toward the end of this chapter, Dewey clarifies his use of Keats’s quotation in his chapter’s title, offering this version of the relevant passage: “the Sun, the Moon, the Earth and its contents, are material to form greater things, that is, etherial things—greater things than the Creator himself made” (I, 143). Dewey uses (or, as I show below, constructs) this passage to show that Keats was precisely the kind of artist Dewey was trying to encourage: one for whom there was no distance between creaturely, participatory living and even the most ethereal creations of art. Dewey reinforces this view by linking Keats’s famous statements on humanity’s essentially creaturely existence—that just like “a Stoat or a field mouse,” man is a “Creature” that “has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it” (Dewey 32-33; II, 79-80))—with negative capability. Immediately following the above quotations, Dewey cites “Negative Capability” and then closes out his citation of Keats’s letters with a citation of a passage from the November 22 letter to Bailey: “Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections?” (Dewey 33; I, 185).

It was through Dewey’s Art as Experience that Walter Jackson Bate first discovered the term “negative capability.” According to Bate, when he was a teenager, on the advice of his father, who checked out the book from the local library, he read Art as Experience and so discovered the “mysterious phrase” (55). This intrigue turned into the work that became Bate’s undergraduate thesis, which was then published as Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats, and which subsequently became the conceptual heart of Bate’s magisterial biography of the poet. Without Art as Experience, Bate may never have put negative capability at the center of Keats’s system of thought, and so draw volumes of critical attention to the term. And here, at this initiating moment, are joined not only Bate and negative capability but also negative capability and the May 10, 11 letter to Haydon.

Given the significant links between Keats’s May 10, 11 letter to Haydon and his negative capability letter, why isn’t the connection between these two letters more broadly recognized? Why, for example, don’t we think of this letter in the same way that we think of Keats’s November 22, 1817 letter to Bailey? Or, a bit more pointedly, why doesn’t Bate, who notes only that the negative capability letter “distills the reactions of three months to the dimension of thinking that had opened to him in September” (237), make provisions for this connection? The answer is: this letter is, or particular aspects of it are, embarrassing. Tracking the trajectory of the letter’s attacks on Hunt, which begin with the projection of “self-dissatisfaction” and then turn into “irritable smugness,” Bate himself notes that Keats arrives at a dismal endpoint:

Then with an unfairness and self-deception unmatched even in Keats until some of the wretched moments near the end, when he was fatally ill, he suddenly condemns Hunt for an ambition to which Hunt never aspired but to which Keats had been completely dedicated for so long, and especially with the generous encouragement of Hunt during the last half year. And ironically he is talking about self-deception. (165)

Here, it goes without saying, Keats reveals his great capability for negativity, and how very far he is from being negatively capable.

It is tempting to ignore or quickly turn away from this ugliness from the poet of truth and beauty. Bate does. Moving on from his discussion of this letter, Bate refers to it by a single descriptor: “cathartic” (166). But we shouldn’t. There is so much more to glean from Keats’s being mean.

The May 10, 11 letter is so much more than merely cathartic. It is, among many other things, also revelatory. In it, Keats admits to possessing “a horrid Morbidity of Temperament,” which he is certain is “the greatest Enemy and stumbling block I have to fear” (I, 142). Keats even goes so far as to say that “it is likely to be the cause of [his] disappointment” (I, 142). That is, if Keats does not succeed as a poet, it will be this particular aspect of himself that is to blame. However, fascinatingly, Keats goes on to recognize this aspect of himself as an advantage:

However every ill has its share of good—this very bane would at any time enable me to look with an obstinate eye on the Devil Himself—ay to be as proud of being the lowest of the human race as Alfred could be in being the highest. I feel confident I should have been a rebel Angel had the opportunity been mine. (I, 142)

This is not catharsis. This is reveling in deep self-understanding. Nicholas Roe, via the discussion of “morbid sensibility” in Hazlitt’s “On Mr. Kean’s Iago,” connects Keats’s “Morbidity of Temperament” with “the corrosive effects of personal ambition mingled with feelings of social disadvantage,” and defines it as “the rankling of a self-made young man who felt himself frustrated by the prejudice of others and hampered by his own self-doubt” (168). And, in part prompted by Roe’s insight, I think we should feel free to connect the above passage from Keats, and especially its linking the lowest with the highest, with his October 27, 1818 letter to Woodhouse. This letter, one as intricately tied to negative capability as the Bailey letter of November 22, 1817), introduces Keats’s notion of the “camelion Poet,” as delighted by “an Iago as an Imogen” (I, 387). Roe, however, suggests that Keats was trying to “overcome” aspects of his morbid temperament and so “be at liberty to create himself” (168), but it’s not clear in this letter that Keats wants to be free of that part of him which is a source of Luciferian strength. (Though Keats may later say that “[i]t is possible to write fine things which cannot be laugh’d at in any way” (II, 174), he also is clear that “there lives not the Man who may not be cut up, aye hashed to pieces on his weakest side” (I, 210). Everyone can be critiqued, sussed out and satirized. Everyone is, to use a term Keats will come to use repeatedly, smokeable.)

What are we to think about the fact that here in this letter with its close ties to negative capability Keats is celebrating his own dark side? I suggest the following:

First, it’s another helpful reminder that Keats’s relationship with negative capability is not as stable as it is sometimes thought to be. It certainly was not after Keats formulated it. Jean-Claude Sallé posits that though “[t]he [negative capability] passage provides so apt a formulation of Keats’s early poetic creed that readers have often been tempted to regard it as the definitive summation of his poetics,” it in fact is not “a permanent credo” but rather “a stage in the evolution of Keats’s thinking, as the definition of an aesthetic quietism which his growing skepticism eventually led him to qualify and relinquish.” And nor was the birth of negative capability without its complications. The May 10, 11 letter, we are given a clear picture of where negative capability comes from, and perhaps see what base material it is made from, how compromised it is, or rather, perhaps, how alloyed it is with this other aspect of Keats, this judging, critical side.

Indeed, secondly, it reminds us that, though it is rarely thought to be so, negative capability in fact has always been a critical term. When we think of negative capability, we tend to think of, as Ou Li succinctly characterizes the concept, “imaginativeness, experiential and artistic intensity, submission of the self, sympathetic identification, the dramatic quality of the poet, disinterestedness, a neutral intellect tolerating diversity and contradiction, and a tragic vision of human experience, all of which are intricately related to one another” (8). But of course the first thing that Keats does after he defines his new term is lambaste Coleridge. Though its substance might include submission and sympathy, negative capability is deployed right away as a battle cry.

Third, if the May 10, 11 letter revises our notion of the context of negative capability, then it also might prepare us to understand the concept in new ways. In particular, it might encourage us to take much more seriously perhaps the clearest and simultaneously the least-attended to contexts of negative capability: the Christmas pantomimes. What about negative capability is pantomimically playful, satirical, violent, socially fluid, and transformative? We’re fortunate that we won’t have to wait too long for an answer: critic Brian Bates already has presented a paper on this, “Keats’ Negative Capability: On Pantomime and ‘Irritable Reaching,’” at the 2016 conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism. When more widely disseminated, this essay has the potential to be paradigm-shifting in terms of the ways negative capability is understood. While I’m confident that Bates’s excellent argument will be persuasive on its own, there’s no reason we should not be ready to hear it.

If any of the above seems too much, too far, it leads us to my fourth and final point: even though we’ve come far in our understanding of Keats, engaging his embarrassment, his boyish imagination, we’re still to prone to clean him, and what he writes, up. In his October, 1818 journal letter to George and Georgiana, Keats says that “there are two distinct tempers of mind in which we judge of things—the worldly, theatrical and pantomimical; and the unearthly, spiritual and etherial” (I, 395). Our ongoing tendency to think about negative capability as spiritual and ethereal and not as worldly and pantomimical indicates this. Dewey did it. In citing the passage from the May 10, 11 letter that resulted in a portion of the title of his second chapter (“the looking upon the Sun the Moon the Stars, the Earth and its contents as materials to form greater things—that is to say ethereal things”), Dewey adds: “—greater things than the Creator himself made” (20). Thus, Dewey stops short of citing Keats’s full addendum to his so far seemingly sincere aesthetic statement: “—but here I am talking like a Madman greater things that our Creator himself made!!” (I, 143; my emphasis). Is Keats proud here? Proud as “a rebel Angel”? Is he critical of this pride? Is Keats here being self-chastisingly spiritual or deliriously, deliciously pantomimical? Significantly, we cannot tell.

Dewey opens the second chapter of Art as Experience by asking rhetorically, “Why is the attempt to connect the higher and ideal things of experience with the basic vital roots so often regarded as betrayal of their nature and denial of their value?” (20) Similarly, we should not wish to sever negative capability’s vital roots in Keats’s painful, powerful, rebellious Temperament as it is revealed in his May 10, 11 letter to Haydon. If we are to have negative capability, it must be as complex as if it were actually made from Keats’s complexities.

Works Cited


Bate, Walter Jackson. “The Endurance of Keats.” The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on Keats. Eds. Robert M. Ryan and Ronald A. Sharp. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

——. Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1939.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1934.

Li, Ou. Keats and Negative Capability. London: Continuum, 2009.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats: A New Life. New Haven, CT: Yale, 2012.

Sallé, Jean-Claude. “Negative Capability.” A Handbook to English Romanticism. Eds. Jean Raimond and J.R. Watson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. 187-9.

Letter #19: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 10/11 May 1817

One can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Leigh Hunt when reading this letter to Haydon–the very day after Keats sent a friendly letter to Hunt, here he is in the letter to Haydon saying some pretty nasty things about Hunt! It’s Keats at his meanest and gossipyist. Hey, we never said Keats was perfect. However, as Michael Theune points out in his ambitious response for today, Keats does show remarkable self-awareness about his own meanness, his tendency toward a “horrid Morbidity of Temperament.” Theune also makes a compelling argument linking Keats’s negativity here with his more famous negative capability, the letter for which we’re all counting down the months and days until this December! We may be a bit partial since Theune is one of the KLP founders, but we find his response to be quite illuminating. We hope you will too!

On a more somber note, it’s worth pointing out that contrary to Keats’s wish at the beginning of the letter (“I pray God that our brazen Tombs be nigh neighbors”), they’re actually about a thousand miles apart. When Haydon received the letter in 1817, he underlined the phrase and wrote a note above it, “I wonder if they will be.” In November 1845 when Haydon copied the letter to send to Richard Monckton Milnes, he slightly changed the note, reading instead “Perhaps they may be.” On 28 May 1846, Haydon sent along to Milnes the original of the letter as well. And just over three weeks later, on 22 June, Haydon took his own life. Alas, his brazen tomb is in London, at the Church of St. Mary in Paddington. The gravestone has seen better days, the cemetery is not nearly as lovely as the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and fame may not exactly be registered on the tomb. But Haydon and Keats nonetheless remain linked together as “heirs of all eternity.” Or at least some of eternity.

The MS images come from Harvard’s collection, and the 1883 Forman edition offers a good printed text.