What did John Keats mean by "Negative Capability?"

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Keats believed negative capability was a condition that enabled the individual to live with doubts and insecurities. Negative capability was one of the most distinctive elements of Keats's understanding of the world and the individual's place within it:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

In the above quote, Keats wrote about the magnitude of Shakespeare's genius. Keats recognized that Shakespeare's greatness resided in being able to illuminate complexity and intricacy in the human predicament.  There is little in the way of simplistic clarity in Shakespeare.  The human being resides in a world of "uncertainties" and "mysteries."

Keats understood negative capability as a definitive quality of the great poets.  Keats embraced negative capability in his own work.  He was able to strive towards a realm where simplicity was rejected in favor of complexity and intricacy in being.  In negative capability, Keats sought to bring out a life devoid of the certainty offered in "fact and reason."  When he writes, "beauty is truth, truth, beauty- that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know" in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," negative capability is understood.  Keats believed that negative capability contained the essence of human consciousness.