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.

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