John Keats Questions and Answers

Start Your Free Trial

What did John Keats mean by "Negative Capability?"

Expert Answers info

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2009

write16,848 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

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.

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

haleympettit | Student

"Negative Capability" is the term John Keats used to describe the character of being a poet: the ability to live with - and thrive in - uncertainty and mystery. As a key figure in the Romantic Movement, this term captures the intangible, ethereal nature of Keats' romanticism. The perfect nature not of things seen and understood, but of things unseen and not completely understood.

Keats himself defined Negative Capability as the following:

"... when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason..."

Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 1817

Here, Keats is using Negative Capability to describe the key feature of the "Man of Achievement", and cites Shakespeare as one such man. He goes on to explain the opposite of Negative Capability as "being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge" (Letter, 1817). He argues that without Negative Capability, the search for knowledge surpasses all else, namely, Beauty. Keats' point is that the pursuit of complete knowledge ultimately accomplishes very little of value, for there is no humanity in cold facts. The "Man of Achievement" is not one that is blind to Beauty, but one that finds (and expresses) the beauty in and through uncertainty.

Keats' capital "B" Beauty is strongly linked to experience and feeling, as opposed to analysis and understanding. The focus on sensory experience as the real source of truth and beauty is a great example of the Romantic mindset that gave way to the Realist movement. Negative Capability allowed Keats to expand his poetic character beyond his own experience, as evidenced in his poetry that is at once sensual, expansive, personal, and universal.