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.

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