The Impact of Negative Capability on Keats’ Life and Work

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Bust of John Keats at Keats House Museum

From a very young age, John Keats aimed to be amongst the great poets of his time. He was a dedicated student of poetry and decided to pursue this career, even after successfully becoming a surgeon. Keats’ had a somewhat tragic life; losing his father, mother, brother, and grandparents before the age of 23. He cared for his mother and brother until the moment of their deaths, and the emotion caused by such experiences seems to have lingered throughout the rest of his life. He was also oblivious to the fortune that was left to him but instead kept by his guardians, causing Keats to be in a constant financial struggle.

As a great admirer of Shakespeare’s work, John Keats would often mention him in letters and refer to the writer directly and indirectly in his own work. He seems to idolize the author to the point that he’d copy his style, maybe in hope that this would achieve him the recognition that he aimed for. In poems such as “When I Have Fears”, we see Keats questioning his own genius, and it can be assumed that Shakespeare’s success is what raised Keats’ doubts; the poem was written at the time that he was carefully studying Shakespeare’s work, while seeing his own art being heavily criticised.
Keats is known to have suffer not only due to the deaths in his family, but also because of his lack of confidence. He found himself inadequate and had difficulties meeting women. His frustrations started to affect his poetry once he saw the irony of a men who writes about love without having ever received the attention of a woman, leading Keats to feel like a fraud.

In 1817, Keats met Isabella Jones, a woman who was close to his circle of friends and was the first to accept his romantic advances. Although nothing more came from this relationship, she seems to have inspired him in some of his great love poems. However, the undertone of frustration and desire to fill a void was still present, and would remain this way for another couple of years. There is a notable difference between Keats’ work before and after 1819, which many believe to be a result of him creating his theory of Negative Capability.

John Keats writes to his brother George in 1819 describing Shakespeare’s genius as Negative Capability: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. Perhaps such realization was not only a result of literary criticism, but a way to escape from his own miseries and obsessions by finding the essence of Shakespeare’s work. Whatever reason has caused Keats to reach this conclusion, it significantly changed the tone of his poetry.

“Ode to a Nightingale” is considered the poem which best reflects how Keats embraced Negative Capability. He abandons the optimistic pursuit of pleasure and cease to question the frustrations that we see in his early poems – instead, he chooses to explore themes of nature and mortality. In this poem, the nightingale can be seen as a representation of death that doesn’t actually die. It lives through its song and the image projected at those who hear it, which is a fate that humans can’t expect. The poem ends with an acceptance of the inevitability of death.

When comparing the structure of his poems before and after embracing Negative Capability, we can also notice a slight chance of style. “When I Have Fears”, for example, mirrors Shakespeare’s style; a sonnet using the ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, dividing the piece into three quatrains ending in a couplet. “Ode to a Nightingale” is an ode – ancient Greek song written to be performed in formal celebrations – having eight separate stanzas of ten lines each. Except from the eight stanza, which is an iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE, also known as the iambic pentameter, which is the most common meter used in the English language.

It is clear that Negative Capability affected Keats’ work, but in my personal view, it has also affected his life. Keats had struggled with loss, bad reviews, unsuccessful attempts of amorous relationships, and the rejected friendship of some of his idols. He seems to have tried hard and let the frustration caused by his failure to affect his behavior. Once he accepts the uncertainties in his poetry, he appears to do so in his life; while living in Wentworth Place, he composes his famous odes, starts to gain more recognition for his work, becomes more present in his friendship circles – which had disintegrated due to inner quarrels – and falls in love with Fanny Brawne. However unstable the latter relationship was, it is an improvement from his behavior towards women just a few years back. When the symptoms of consumption appear, there are no doubts that Keats could identify them himself. Not only because of his medical knowledge, but also due to the fact that he had cared for more than one consumptive relative, the most recent being his brother Tom, in 1818.

It could be a mere coincident, but I believe that upon discovering that he was too suffering from the symptoms of consumption, Keats had accepted what his fate brought him because of his understanding of Negative Capability. The fact that his life was deteriorating and his death was certain didn’t stop him from working and staying involved with Fanny Brawne. His doubts towards this relationship could have come from worrying about how Miss Brawne would deal with his death, but on the other hand, mood swings and indecision have also been considered symptoms of consumption. His will to stick to this philosophy – if we can call it that – of Negative Capability appears to have given him strength to live for the sake of the ones who cared for him, after accepting his fate himself.

Although Keats didn’t believe that he had achieve enough to became a prestigious poet – fact that can be established due to his wish of having no name on his tombstone, and instead “here lies one whose name was writ in water” – he had accepted his early death. On the accounts of Joseph Severn, the painter and friend who accompanied Keats to Rome in hope that the climate would improve his condition, Keats would be relaxed and optimistic at times, but attempting suicide in the next moment – also a normal behavior for the consumptive patient. The main prove of his acceptance of his own fate is marked by his last words: “Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy; don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.”.

To conclude, Keats theory of Negative Capability have not only transformed his work, but was also the possible key element to the creation of the work that has made him a great Romantic poet, as well as considerably improving his perception of life and the way that he dealt with his struggles and uncertainties. Negative Capability had a strong impact on his fate, likely being the reason why John Keats has – against his own belief – achieved the immortality of the nightingale.

Written by Ana Stevenson for the University of Oxford course on Romantic Poetry

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