In less than ten words, we can define John Keats’s concept of “negative capability” as “the ability to dwell on or with uncertainty.” In an 1817 letter to his brothers, Keats described negative capability as essential to “a Man of Achievement especially in Literature” (Keats 492): in order for a poet to “perceiv[e] reality in all its manifold complexity,” he or she must “remain open-minded…to embrace the unsure and ambiguous, to avoid the temptation to rationalize all uncertainties, to negate one’s own personality and prejudices” (Bedford Glossary of Literary and Critical Terms 332). Hence, the word “negative.”
For an example of negative capability at work, look no further than stanza four of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a poem written in 1819 and published in 1820. The poem’s speaker describes his wish to “fly” (31), or imaginatively transport himself to the nightingale, rejecting his previous discussion of using alcohol (“Bacchus and his pards” (32)) as his means of doing so. Instead, the speaker declares that the “viewless wings of Poesy” will be the vehicle of his transcendence (33). Allowing “Poesy” the imaginative power to carry out this task (despite the interference of his “dull brain” that “perplexes and retards” him through its tendency toward thought and rhetorical argumentation (34)), the speaker comes to the realization that he is, in fact, “Already with [the nightingale]” (35). Though he begins the stanza desiring to “fly” to the nightingale, he ultimately realizes that his imaginative engagement with it through poetry demonstrates that he is “[A]lready with [it].” Once he can identify his “dull brain” as an impediment to his perception of reality “in all of its manifold complexity,” the speaker demonstrates “negative capability”–the ability to simply perceive and experience (in this case, desire), rather than pursue some fulfillment of (and thus, end to) it.
I previously uploaded a recording of “Ode to a Nightingale” performed by actor Ben Whishaw, who played John Keats in Jane Campion’s 2009 Bright Star, but it was taken down for copyright reasons. You can still find it on iTunes, and I highly recommend it. Whishaw is a fantastic Keats. In its place I’ve uploaded a recording of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recitation of the poem. While listening to it, consider the following: do you agree with my interpretation of these lines? Where else in the poem do we find evidence of negative capability? Does the speaker entirely abandon “fact and reason” in favor of “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts” (Keats 492)? What observations do you have about Cumberbatch’s performance of the poem in relation to the poem’s content? Did you notice something when he read it that you had not noticed when reading? Are there any lines that he either delivers really well, or ones that you think are totally wrong in his interpretation?
Additionally, I have also uploaded an audio clip from the movie in which Whishaw as Keats explains a bit of his poetic philosophy.
Full text of the poem here (the numbers are line numbers):
“Ode to a Nightingale”
MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 5
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 10
O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South! 15
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 20
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, 25
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. 30
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night, 35
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. 40
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 45
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast-fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 50
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 55
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod. 60
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 65
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 70
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 75
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep? 80
Griffin, Andrew. “Sonnets.” UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. 4 October 2012.
Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Murfin, Ross C., and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.