Sep 072010

This is an excerpt from Keats’ letter (Dec 21, 1817) to his brothers:

I spent Friday evening with Wells, and went next morning to see Death on the Pale Horse. It is a wonderful picture, when West’s age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss, no face swelling into reality-The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine ‘King Lear’, and you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness-The picture is larger than ‘Christ rejected’.

I dined with Haydon the Sunday after you left, and bad a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith, and met his two Brothers, with Hill and King ston, and one Du Bois. They only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment-These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their eating and drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter-They talked of Kean and his low company -Would I were with that Company instead of yours, said I to mvself! I know such like acquaintance will never do for me and yet I am going to Reynolds on Wednesday. Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and 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 a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.


  7 Responses to “Then think about this: Keats on Negative Capability”

  1. I think it was Walter Jackson Bates who pointed out that the key word in the famous explanation was “irritable.” Easy does it, but do it. Cum sidera is the source of consideration. Consider this, begins the parables which are told thus so that those who just want the info without having to know with both mind and soul won’t get saved by accident. Keats regards Beauty as Truth. The questioning of what “superlative writing” means in this time is not cynical but a return to the platonic question. After all, the wind seems to always win the day…

  2. What else can superlative writing mean than the pursuit of Beauty, that shiver at the base of your spine solemnly intoned by Nabokov? But on the platonic conception, we can only grasp after them. Can only participate in the Forms in a limited way. Must always fail, in other words. Nietzsche put it much better:

    A Sigh . I caught this notion on the way, and
    rapidly took the readiest, poor words to hold it
    fast, so that it might not again fly away. But it has
    died in these dry words, and hangs and flaps
    about in them-and now I hardly know, when I
    look upon it, how I could have had such
    happiness when I caught this bird.

    It remains an open-ended question whether such aesthetic flights remain of interest to a contemporary reading audience.

  3. I suppose you’re right about the shiver, and I’m sure you’re right about the mystery and uncertainty of what interests a contemporary reading public. But how does it go in the dialogue? Do the gods love truth because it’s beautiful, or is truth beautiful because the gods love it? And so who are our gods now? Who is their oracle: Garrison Keillor? Strunk & White and Ricky Nelson advise us to write to our own shivers and look upon the uncertain workshop consensus with an equanimity that is neither indifferent nor concerned.

  4. Equanimity is equalled and always called for, that’s all I know for sure.

    What I’m pretty sure of: truth is not beautiful. Or only rarely. What is beautiful is always truth, though.

    What I don’t know: who the gods deciding these things are.

  5. I know absolutely nothing about God myself, and yet I make a short prayer for serenity several times each day–a matter of perspective.
    Keats’ letter is interesting because it’s fraught with class and literary defensiveness as it states a primary principle of universal wisdom. Accept the mystery. What is knowledge without “fear of God?” (Awe of God?) Keats didn’t live long enough to find a solid equanimity with the unfairness that comes with this life–“writ on water” is the complaint on his gravestone. I distinguish between acceptance and resignation and between serenity and complacency. What is, most certainly is–and much of it lately is horseshit.
    There’s nothing mean in nature, Emerson tells us, meaning nothing petty or ugly. As we contemplate slugs sucking over a pile of dogcrap we’re challenged to expand ourselves.
    I like the honesty and humor in your blog quite bit. Nabokov, incidentally, had extremely elegant manners and was of course a genius writer, but he was not a kind or generous man.

  6. Thanks for the kind words about the blog.

    I have personally achieved nothing like a state of serenity. Equanimity to me means remaining calm in the face of life’s oscillations, good and bad; but serenity is beyond me.

    From what I can tell Nabokov was kind enough to those he deigned worthy of his attention, but those people were damned few. I suppose it is to be expected when you grown up the fabulously wealthy scion of one of Russia’s first families. I give him a great deal of credit for his equanimity in the face of personal disaster following the Russian Revolution, though; and I think we may credit his incredibly privileged upbringing with his later ability to complete ignore various facets of reality in pursuit of his art. He just couldn’t ever quite make himself believe that he had to deal with the plebian facts of existence. It is an enviable, if unattainable, attitude, though it does lend itself to a certain haughtiness.

  7. I think Nabokov’s personality has some relevance to our musings on Keats’ letter and negative capability because it’s an example of a refined, ultra-educated writer of genius talent who couldn’t resist acting out the bitterness of his pride. Typically, Nabokov would, with dazzling charm, invite some wildly flattered Cornell student writer to show him a story only to tell him he was utterly untalented and should never write again. He played a similar game with would-be biographers. Yes, he was a snob and sometimes a cruel one. Perhaps in Pnin his awareness of this in himself comes through most tellingly as the expatriate Pnin dislikes so much, though many other of his characters show it. This almost personal resentment of plebian democracy was like fissure in his elegant facade. Serenity to me simply means the equanimity you refer to.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.