Thoughts on Keats’ Letters and Negative Capability:
“In passing however I must say of one thing that has pressed upon me lately and increased my Humility and capability of submission and that is this truth – [Women] of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect – but they have not any individuality, any determined Character – I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self [Women] of Power.”
Selection from Keats’ Letter to Benjamin Bailey, Nov. 22, 1817
In this passage, Keats argues that the Poet must be submissive, passive, and neutral-minded in order to act as a conduit for truth and beauty. He points to the idea that those whose individuality is overt and central are ultimately unable to transmute the kind of poetry that incorporates all of the possibilities of truth and beauty. For Keats, the creative sensibility is one that trusts sensation over philosophizing, and thus his poetry is steeped in saturated and beautiful descriptions of scenes through all five senses. Keats mistrusts any poetry that overtly shows the intentions of the poet, and he ultimately does not trust the mind to produce true poetry. He turns away from Reason and intellect and instead invests in the “holiness of the heart’s affections,” or the imagination. Passion, or the imagination, is for Keats “creative of beauty,” and where the imagination perceives beauty, through sensation, is where beauty exists in its truth.
Today, we briefly mentioned Igor Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring in relation to Keats’ poetry. Stravinsky once said, “My music is best understood by children and animals¹.” It occurs to me that, in this moment, he was not demeaning his work by calling it over-simplified but was rather pointing out the necessity of feeling to the understanding of his compositions. Those creatures who are not readily disposed to refined rational capabilities, those creatures who are guided by their instincts and emotions, will best understand Stravinsky’s music.
I think this is also true of Keats’ work. When Keats writes about negative capability, he’s referring to those individuals who do not over-think or try to rationalize sensations and emotions but instead submit themselves to the experience of the sensations by virtue of the imagination.