The Meaning of John Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Negative Capability’ is one of the key ideas associated with the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821). But what exactly did Keats mean by ‘Negative Capability’? Let’s take a closer look at this theory, which made its first appearance in a letter Keats wrote to his brothers.

In December 1817, Keats was walking home from the Christmas pantomime with two of his friends, Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Brown. According to Keats’s subsequent account, in a letter to his brothers George and Tom, he had a wide-ranging discussion with Dilke during the walk home:

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 possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a 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.

‘Negative Capability’, then, was Keats’s coinage, used by him to describe a person’s ability to be content with not knowing things for sure: Negative Capability involves being able to say ‘I don’t know’ and to embrace uncertainties and doubts about various issues. In other words, Negative Capability entails suspending one’s judgment on a particular matter, and instead being content to chew it over, view it from a variety of positions, and enjoy not knowing the answers straight away.

In one sense, the term ‘Negative Capability’ sounds almost an oxymoron: ‘Negative’ sounds pejorative (or negative, if you will), while ‘Capability’ has positive connotations. If one didn’t know any better, one might almost think that ‘Negative Capability’ was a euphemistic way of describing someone who was completely inept or incompetent, so you might describe a weak politician as ‘possessing a negative capability’.

But no: Keats is using ‘Negative’ to refer to a lack of something – not knowing all the answers, not being able to rationalise everything neatly – but calling this lack, or negative, a good thing.

One might use the example of religion. Everyone is, strictly speaking, an agnostic about whether there is a God, or some higher, godlike power in the universe. We are all agnostic because we don’t technically know whether there is a God (or gods). Some people talk as if they do know for sure, but they don’t: religious people may feel as though they have seen evidence with their own eyes, while atheists may think that the chances are so against there being some kind of higher power that we may as well say ‘we definitely know there isn’t anything’. But in reality, Christians and atheists alike are both agnostic on the God issue, because none of us knows for sure that there is – or isn’t – a higher power.

But Keats’s Negative Capability would see this doubt, this agnostic position, as a good thing: if you’re a Christian, it’s good to entertain doubts, and if you’re an atheist, it’s good to hedge your bets and be scientific and strictly accurate and say ‘there probably isn’t a God’. Or, in a quotation attributed to Bertrand Russell, the fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. Or, as a poet often confused with Keats, W. B. Yeats, put it in his 1919 poem ‘The Second Coming’:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We can find examples of Negative Capability in Keats’s poetry, and it’s clear that, although he hadn’t used this two-word phrase before and wouldn’t use it again after its inaugural mention in that 1817 letter, the idea the phrase represents was one that we find explored and reflected in his writings again and again. A famous example is the final stanza of his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, where the inscription around the urn tells the reader to be content with knowing only one fact:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

In other words, beauty is all we need in order to discover truth, and truth is itself beautiful. This is all we, are mortals, know, but it’s all we need to know: we shouldn’t impatiently go in pursuit of answers which we don’t need to have. Implied in these last lines of Keats’s poem is the suggestion that we shouldn’t attempt to find concrete answers to everything; sometimes the mystery is enough.

As we say, Keats didn’t use the term ‘Negative Capability’ again. Rather than use it as the foundation for an entire essay or treatise – as his friend and fellow Romantic Percy Shelley might have done – Keats was happy for this expression to be used in this throwaway and one-off manner in a letter to his family. But it has taken on a life of its own, and its lesson is one that we should continue to heed.

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