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Michael Theune

Negative Capability T wang dillo dee

Portrait of Keats, listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath, by Joseph Severn, c.1845

Portrait of Keats, listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath, by Joseph Severn, c.1845


I’m all for great poetry. I’m all for the sympathetic imagination, and generative disinterestedness. I’m all for a certain degree of patience in the face of mystery. I even often despair of many of the conclusions reached by means of what John Keats called “consequitive reasoning.” In some of my extremely agreeable moments, I’m even for something that, when pressed, I might call Beauty. And yet, for all my general agreement with what often is taken to be the substance of Negative Capability, I don’t care much for Negative Capability.


Negative Capability, of course, is the term Keats uses near the end of a letter dated 21 December 1817 most directly to name the quality that “went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” a quality, or state, Keats defines as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” However, while much has been made of the meaning of Negative Capability, I want to suggest here that, in fact, much of the real significance of Negative Capability resides in the term Negative Capability itself, a term which — if it signifies anything specific, anything beyond the qualities I’ve named without fuss in the previous paragraph — names a quantity of abstraction that allows the term to be applied to almost anything, including some very problematic applications. Doing more harm than good, Negative Capability is a term we should, and can, do without.


Though I intend to focus my remarks specifically on the power and the problems of the term Negative Capability, I want to acknowledge right away the dynamic that drives my thinking: the term Negative Capability is a highly applicable abstraction in large part because what it names is ambiguous, and profoundly incomplete. Negative Capability is at once ethical and a matter of aesthetics, it is existential, psychological, and artistic; however, it is not smoothly and completely so. For example, to draw attention to just one complication at the heart of what Negative Capability supposedly signifies, though it prohibits any irritable reaching, Negative Capability is essential to “Achievement”; however, Keats never fully addresses how one productively engages Negative Capability. Discussing this engagement, then, always involves a certain amount of — sometimes acknowledged, sometimes unacknowledged — speculation or compromise. As evidenced, as we will see, by the many caveats and concessions surrounding the uses of the term Negative Capability, by far most uses of Negative Capability do not intend to engage each and every possible aspect of Negative Capability — when in the first paragraph I referred to “what often is taken to be the substance of Negative Capability,” to be more accurate I should have said, “what often is taken, in parts conducive to one’s overall argument, to be the substance of Negative Capability.”

Keats portrait on Penguin product


For now, though, let’s return to the term itself, and get it right out in the open: Negative Capability is a sexy, seductive term. It’s mysterious, a bit shadowy. It attracts with that paradoxical sublimity: Negative — it likely won’t obey the rules; but also Capable — still, it’s a sure thing it’ll get the job done. Of course, part of what makes Negative Capability so attractive is how flexible it is. What can’t Negative Capability attach itself to? It turns out: not much.


The wild positions Negative Capability, as a result solely of the specific formulation of the term, can be made to assume become clear if one considers: what if the term Keats employed to designate the capability “of being in uncertainties,” etc. were something other than “Negative” Capability? Certain uses of Negative Capability, especially those which make a pun, or otherwise play off, of “Negative” would become obsolete. For example, whatever term replaces Negative Capability very likely would not — could not — be used in the title “Negative Capability: The Photographs of Barbara Jaffe,” the title of an essay by A.D. Coleman about Jaffe’s photographic technique of reproducing her photographic negatives. Nor very likely would — or could — Maxine Hong Kingston, in To Be the Poet, employ the term to designate a power to understand missing things, to declare, “I have negative capability — Keats’s law of poetry — and know what’s not there.” Harper’s Magazine would not — could not — have employed the term to title a list of humorous denials — such as “The President of the United States is not a fact-checker… .I’m not a pollster, a poll-reader guy… .I’m not a very good novelist… .” — made by George W. Bush and his spokespersons, a list they in fact call “Negative capability.” Nor would — or could — the term Negative Capability, which does not in any way refer to anger or negativity, be used as it is by Tony Hoagland for the title of his essay “Negative Capability: How to Talk Mean and Influence People,” and by Josh Saitz, the self-described moody founder and editor of the angry ’zine Negative Capability, and by punk rockers the Urinals, who titled one of their albums Negative Capability… Check It Out!


And if the term Keats used to name the quality that “went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously… ” had been something more specifically literary, something like, say, “Shakespearean Capability”? It likely could not be, but most certainly would not have been, used, as it has been, by psychologist and theorist Wilfred Bion to name the quality of openness to the analysand’s experiences he hopes analysts will have. And it would not have been used by Eben Pagan, the founder of the Get Altitude program, as a part of his method for improving business marketing. Marketers might imagine they have Negative Capability, but it is doubtful that almost any marketer actually has Shakespearean Capability. (This, of course, goes for most poets, as well.)


More significantly, however, the same holds true for many more purposefully scholarly uses of the term Negative Capability. Walter Jackson Bate, the critic who has played the most significant role in laying out Keats’s philosophy and poetics and connecting them to Negative Capability, acknowledges his attraction to the term. In his essay “The Endurance of Keats,” Bate recounts reading while in high school John Dewey’s Art as Experience and encountering in that book “a mysterious phrase of Keats’s about Shakespeare, ‘Negative Capability… .’” According to Bate, the phrase “so interested [him] that, as a college freshman, [he] wrote a paper, and later, as a senior [he] wrote a small thesis with that title, which [college officials] liked well enough to publish in 1939 in a series of college theses.” Twenty-five years after the publication of this undergraduate thesis, Bate employs the term Negative Capability to name a central chapter in his biography of Keats.

Silhouette of John Keats in 1819 by Charles Brown; this was given as a gift to Keats's sister, Fanny

Silhouette of John Keats in 1819 by Charles Brown; this was given as a gift to Keats’s sister, Fanny


For Bate, Negative Capability is at the heart of a number of interconnected ideas in Keats’s thinking, a system linking disinterestedness with the potential for the workings of the sympathetic imagination, qualities of thinking and artistic endeavor promoted by Keats’s philosophical mentor William Hazlitt, and which, in a series of lectures Keats attended, Hazlitt argued were so largely possessed by Shakespeare. Bate also links Negative Capability with the “camelion poet,” the poet of “no identity” who takes on the identities of his ostensible subjects — be they Iagos or Imogens — and he contrasts Negative Capability to other kinds and qualities of thought- and poem-making such as what Keats derogatorily called “consequitive reasoning” and “palpable design.” It is largely because of Bate that we think of Negative Capability as central to Keats’s thinking and poetic project.


And it is precisely the attractive and suggestive abstractness of the term “Negative Capability” which makes the term the perfect label for such a larger system. This is not to say that had Keats’s term in fact been, say, “Shakespearean Capability” that Bate would not have developed the system he in fact developed; rather, it is only to isolate and suggest the specific power of the specific term Negative Capability, and to suggest that, while we might still be talking about Keats’s system, a system which features interest in and an apprenticeship to disinterested, camelion Shakespearean drama, Bate likely would not have referred to this system, generally, with a more specific term such as “Shakespearean Capability.”


And we almost certainly would not use a more specific term such as Shakespearean Capability as the privileged term that so often is used to sum up all of Keats, or even a main current of Romanticism. Too specific and definitive, Shakespearean Capability would not — could not — be used, as Negative Capability is, as a last word, offered up as a summation of Keats’s life and work, at the end of Philip Levine’s introduction to his Essential Keats, an introduction in which the only biographer or critic of Keats to receive mention is Walter Jackson Bate. It also is doubtful Robert Duncan would have used the term Shakespearean Capability to refer more broadly to the Romantic movement’s “intellectual adventure of not knowing,” or that Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey C. Robinson would have employed Duncan’s use of the term — “With the Romantic movement, the intellectual adventure of not knowing, of ‘Negative Capability,’ Keats called it in poetry, returns. The truth we know is not of What Is, but of What Is Happening.” — as one of five epigraphs to the third volume of Poems for the Millennium, the volume which covers Romantic and Post-Romantic poetry, and a volume which, for all of its skillful, creative editing, still largely presents Negatively Capable Keats, representing Keats’s thinking by including in the “Commentary” portion of the section on Keats the Negative Capability passage and, later, Keats’s letter on the camelion poet.


(N.B.: While undoubtedly a useful thought experiment, entertaining the possibility that Negative Capability is not Keats’s original term is not mere insubstantial speculation. The only extant copy of the “Negative Capability” letter is a transcript by John Jeffrey, the second husband of Georgiana Keats, John Keats’s sister-in-law, and Jeffrey was a notoriously hasty and inaccurate transcriber. Hyder E. Rollins, the editor of The Letters of John Keats, notes that Jeffrey “changed words or phrases that he disliked or did not understand or could not decipher,” and in his notes to the “Negative Capability” letter, Rollins calls the transcript of the “Negative Capability” letter “very puzzling,” noting numerous mistakes and omissions made by Jeffrey, including a wrong date, numerous misspellings, and the omission near the beginning of the letter of “some words (possibly even a page or two).” In the introduction to his version of Keats’s Selected Letters, editor Robert Gittings goes so far as to call Jeffrey’s transcripts “a travesty of what Keats wrote,” and he speculates, specifically, that Negative Capability “may have been invented or misread by Jeffrey.” It is, indeed, possible that all the attractions of the specific term “Negative Capability” may be a result of careless copying.)

Silhouette of John Keats by Marianne Hunt. This silhouette was made in 1820, while Keats recuperated at Leigh and Marianne Hunt's home.

Silhouette of John Keats by Marianne Hunt. This silhouette was made in 1820, while Keats recuperated at Leigh and Marianne Hunt's home.


While it is impossible to know exactly what kind of range of reference Keats intended Negative Capability to have, Negative Capability is simultaneously so seductive and user-friendly that it is sometimes employed in a way a user knows Keats never intended. Referring to how Negative Capability is “a required precursor to empathy in life and in art” and to “the necessity of some degree of ‘annulling self’ in the creation of all real literature,” science fiction writer Dan Simmons’s “Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers: the Writer’s Curse of Negative Capability” generally is very much in line with the Batean idea of Negative Capability; however, Simmons also takes Negative Capability to mean a general paring down or cutting away of material, a use he knows is not exactly accurate: “Sparseness of prose, Hemingwayesque prose, Raymond Carveresque prose, has always impressed me with its disciplined beauty. The clarity of pebbles viewed through a clear stream. Not what Keats meant by Negative Capability, of course, but a kind of negative capability nonetheless.”


And Linda Gregerson calls her book of poetry criticism Negative Capability: Contemporary American Poetry even though she knows this title is fairly inaccurate, or at least does not even match up with her own — again, quite Batean — notion of Negative Capability. According to Gregerson, the poetry she champions — which she defines as “‘passive egotistical,’” created with a palpable design, though one “modulated… into one of the great semantic and tonal resources of contemporary American poetry, most palpably when it stages its own undoing,” and, while not “long on fact and reason of the sort Keats had in mind,” still “filled with irritable reaching” — is not Keatsian, for Keats “championed in the writer a ‘passive and receptive’ posture and opposed this to a mode he called the ‘egotistical sublime,’” and he “rejected poetry ‘that has a palpable design on us,” preferring instead poetry free of “‘irritable reaching after fact and reason.’” Of her own application of the term Negative Capability, Gregerson admits: “Not that Keats would necessarily approve.”


Rather than conceding that one’s use of Negative Capability is not precisely what Keats meant by the term, more typically references to and uses of Negative Capability handle that term’s inherent abstraction by pointing to the specific positive capabilities that any specific, significant endeavor requires. In fact, writing that employs reference to Negative Capability generally is riddled with qualifications and caveats — or out-and-out redefinitions of Negative Capability — in an effort to ward off and control the vague term’s referential wanderings. For example, in a review critical of Eavan Boland’s The Lost Land, Richard Tillinghast states that he hopes that Boland “recover her passion for the art” of poetry, noting that “[a] good place for her to start would be to read what Keats says about Negative Capability… and about the Egotistical Sublime, a term Keats might have coined expressly to describe The Lost Land.” However, Tillinghast is clear that Negative Capability is not enough to make good poetry. Though he notes that “[t]he talent for writing poetry is a gift,” Tillinghast also recognizes that “it also involves craft, invention, and hard work,” evidence of which he finds missing in The Lost Land. The author of the web site “Catskill Cottage Seed” acknowledges the need for Negative Capability but also, citing an idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, notes that “it takes 10,000 hours engaged in the practice of whatever to reach mastery in the given activity.”


In fact, the incapacity of too much, or only, Negative Capability can be judged to be detrimental to good poetry, resulting in a call for greater positive capability. In “In Each Other’s Arms, or No, Not Really,” a review of Jorie Graham’s Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems and The Errancy, Eric Murphy Selinger critiques Graham’s work by noting that “[t]he weaknesses of The Errancy boil down, in the end, to a lack of what I hereby dub Positive Capability: that is, the ability to rest in fact and reason without irritably reaching after mystery, uncertainty and doubt.” In “Positive Capability: After Language Poetry,” Don A. Hoyt detects a decline in the efficacy of much recent poetry, a decline which begins with Keats, and which can be countered with a renewed study and deployment of rhetoric. And Lionel Trilling speculates that Negative Capability itself really “is the most positive capability imaginable,” one that incorporates and depends upon its own opposite: “Negative Capability, the faculty of not having made up one’s mind about everything, depends upon the sense of one’s personal identity and is the sign of personal identity. Only the self that is certain of its existence, of its identity, can do without the armor of systematic certainties.”


The widely applicable abstraction of Negative Capability — which should now be understood as Negative-Capability-with-caveats — becomes clearest, however, when one considers the fact that Negative Capability has been used to describe wildly different, and even opposing, kinds of poetry. Sometimes, Negative Capability describes emotionally authentic writing. Robert Peake argues that Li-Young Lee — who “seems to let [Peake] in unflinchingly to [Lee’s] most intimate moments” though Lee “never steers the experience toward any overt manipulation of what I should feel or think… .,” “the kind of poetry you just can’t fake” — has Negative Capability. In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver also seems to link Negative Capability with emotional authenticity, stating, “Now, as then, the concept of negative capability goes to the heart of the matter — the ‘mere’ diction of the poem, in any age, is the vehicle that holds, then transfers from the page to the reader an absolutely essential quality of real feeling.” However, Negative Capability also is used by others precisely to designate a poet’s skill in faking other’s voices and emotions. Stuart Friebert and David Young call particular poems, including dramatic monologues, by Randall Jarrell the result, “partly,” from Negative Capability. Iain Bamforth claims that Fernando Pessoa is “in classic literary terms, no self and all negative capability.”


Negative Capability, additionally, has been employed to describe poetry on both sides of the divide separating mainstream/lyrical/Quietist poetry and avant-garde/experimental/Post-Avant poetry. In “Make the World Cohere,” a review of Thom Gunn’s Collected Poems, R.S. Gwynn states that “negative capability… ultimately becomes Gunn’s strongest poetic resource.” In “Three Tenors: Gluck, Hass, Pinsky, and the Deployment of Talent,” Tony Hoagland calls Robert Hass’s poetry — which he describes as “de-centered and non-linear, but rhythmic and intuitive, one which… can incorporate and digest its own doubts and feelings as it goes along” — negatively capable. In “Poetry and Uncertainty” — an essay that quotes generously from Keats and features Keats’s definition of Negative Capability, and an essay that intends to make clear that “to be human is to be unsure, and if the purpose of poetry is to deepen the humanness in us, poetry will be unsure as well” — Jane Hirschfield features poems, by poets such as Anna Swir, Walt Whitman, Czeslaw Milosz, and others, that in fact are absolutely clear poems that reference chaos and unknowing but do not particularly enact such qualities. The title of an essay by Angela M. Salas makes very clear its subject matter: “Race, Human Empathy, and Negative Capability: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa.”


But other poems and poetry described as having Negative Capability are more obviously avant-garde and experimental. In “Charles Olson and Negative Capability: A Phenomenological Interpretation,” William V. Spanos argues that Charles Olson’s poetry embodies the Negative Capability that Olson elsewhere considers and celebrates — most noticeably in The Special View of History, which employs the Negative Capability passage as one of its two epigraphs. In “Negative Capability and Its Children,” Charles Simic — for whom “[t]o be ‘capable of being in uncertainties’ is to be literally in the midst,” and for whom a poem “is in the midst, a kind of magnet for complex historical, literary and psychological forces” — analyzes the different methods by which Imagists and Surrealists approach the image in order to suggest that new poems must move forward from these approaches; Simic states, “Obviously, the rigorous phenomenological analysis of imagination and perception that surrealists and imagists have done has opened a whole new range of unknowns which address themselves to thought, and in the process alter the premises of the poems being written and the way in which they conceive of meaning.” The editors of Apostrophe Books — a publisher devoted, according to their web site, to filling the gap “in work devoted to the hybridization and intersection of poetic discourse with theory, philosophy, cultural studies, and pataphysics” — in a blog post titled “pataphysics and the philosophy of the absurd,” link pataphysics, which largely consists of the often nonsensical parody of modern science’s theory and methods, with Negative Capability by noting that “[t]he intersection, then, with pataphysics involves an ‘anti-metaphysical’ trajectory that delights in the uncertain and indeterminate nature of human experience; a kind of postmodern Negative Capability perhaps… .”


Rather than try to sort out the correct or accurate usages from among extremely diverse uses like those above — an impossible undertaking, I think — it is more important instead to make note of and to investigate trends in the uses of Negative Capability. If Negative Capability has any substantial meaning in itself, that meaning might be gleaned from trends in its use, and despite Negative Capability’s diverse application, some clear, and clearly troubling, trends in fact emerge.


One trend, of course, is the sheer quantity of reference to Negative Capability. The term is popular. And it continues to be popular even in the face of numerous, sporadic attempts to critique its use. In “Keats, Altered by the Present,” an essay published in 1983, Shimon Sandbank states, “‘Negative capability,’ as extinction of self for the sake of total empathy with subject, has been not only praised but worked out of all proportion, certainly out of the ten lines it occupies in the famous letter to his brothers, or even the thirty lines about the ‘camelion Poet’ in the equally famous letter to Woodhouse.” In a notebook entry from the early 1980’s, collected in Memory and Enthusiasm: Essays 1975–1985, W.S. DiPiero notes, “Keats’s remark about Negative Capability seems to be becoming a literary cult object. The commentators are full of it these days.” Of course, as I have been arguing, Negative Capability is likely so popular in large part because it makes itself available in so many ways.


However, to be clear: this is not to say that because the term Negative Capability has been attached to them that these diverse references to Negative Capability signal any kind of substantive commonality — Li-Young Lee’s poetry in fact has nothing to do with neo-pataphysical poetry, and vice versa. Nothing indicates this more clearly than another trend in the use of Negative Capability: Negative Capability is very rarely understood as a term that encourages the consideration of a variety of aesthetics, and it almost never is employed as a route for broadening one’s own aesthetics. That is, though, to cite one very rare example, in “The Worst of the Best, or ‘Pessoa Schmessoa,’” her review of some poetry anthologies from the 1990’s, Sandra M. Gilbert praises editor George Bradley for being in possession of “a Keatsian negative capability that allows him to see the virtues in works by a range of different artists,” in fact almost never does a critic tell of a conversion to a new aesthetic by means of Negative Capability; instead, Negative Capability mostly is employed as one more reason why others should be persuaded and moved by the critic’s own perspective. Critics apply the descriptor “Negatively Capable” to describe and praise a kind of writing the critic already approves of. Deeply paradoxically, viewed en masse, the vast majority of uses of Negative Capability themselves are not terribly negatively capable.


And nor are many of the uses of Negative Capability really that Keatsian. Though, to name a few other trends in the overall use of the term Negative Capability, using the term Negative Capability allows the user the satisfaction of getting to employ the sexy term Negative Capability, and perhaps establishes some ethos for the user by revealing that the user at least knows something of the history of poetics and that the user’s values generally are in line with Keats’s, in fact the amount of contact Negative Capability actually makes with poetic history and tradition via Keats is questionable. Keats was not set on his use of Negative Capability. Just six months after making his statement about Negative Capability Keats seems to recognize that though he admires Negative Capability he does not yet have it; in a letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated 10 June 1818, Keats states, “… I am not old enough or magnanimous enough to annihilate self.” And two years later, Keats goes even further to countermand his advocacy for Negative Capability, writing in his 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley that an artist “must have ‘self-concentration’ selfishness perhaps.”


Such comments have led critics to see Negative Capability as an important part but not the essence of Keats’s poetic development. In Word like a Bell: John Keats, Music and the Romantic Poet, John A. Minahan states that “Negative Capability, though important, is hardly the key to [Keats’s] thought in its entirety.” In his entry on Negative Capability in A Handbook to English Romanticism, Jean-Claude Sallé notes that though “[t]he [Negative Capability] passage provides so apt a formulation of Keats’s early poetic creed that readers have often been tempted to regard it as the definitive summation of his poetics,” Negative Capability should not be viewed as “a permanent credo” but rather “a stage in the evolution of Keats’s thinking, as the definition of an aesthetic quietism which his growing skepticism eventually led him to qualify and relinquish.” Registering Keats’s growing attention to power dynamics, James Chandler in England in 1819 suggests that Negative Capability gets subsumed by Keats’s awareness of and interest in the ability to, to use a word Keats employed often, “smoke” — that is, to suss out and to critique through withering satire — intellectual and creative work.


Believing that Negative Capability is the most vital part of Keats — again, a belief largely permitted by nothing much more than Negative Capability’s useful abstraction — is not only wrong but also misleading, leading to a misrepresentation of Keats and of poetry. While a Shakespearean Capability might be thought capable of creating and employing humor, as having as much delight in conceiving not only a vicious Iago as a virtuous Imogen, but a comic fool as a tragic Lear, in one of the clearest trends in terms of its use, Negative Capability is almost always thought to be a serious term, one used to endorse only serious poetry — Negative Capability is rarely, if ever, applied to comedic poetry. And when used as shorthand to encapsulate the totality of Keats’s thought and work, the result is that it seems as though Keats’s thought and work are only serious.


Nothing could be further from the truth. Keats loved humor, and was himself very funny — even Walter Jackson Bate in his biography of Keats acknowledges that Keats possessed an “effervescent humor.” This humor is present throughout Keats’s life, letters, and poetry. Though at times Keats certainly could become tired of the London social scene, he often actively participated in it, engaging in often uproarious, bawdy, silly dinner conversations and parties. And this humor and sociability overflow into Keats’s letters. In his introduction to Gittings’ edition of Keats’s Selected Letters, Jon Mee notes, “There is a strong sense of the correspondence being part of an ongoing ‘chat’: its digressions, punning, speculations, exaggerations, and teasing extend the sociable culture of the capital’s middle classes from the drawing-room to the page.” And just as Keats’s life generates his letters, the letters — the workshop and the occasions for so many of Keats’s poems — generate poems. In “Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats,” Jack Stillinger notes, “Somebody in the NASSR (North American Society for the Study of Romanticism) user group recently raised the question of whether Keats had a sense of humor, and responses poured in to such an extent that one got the idea there were hardly any letters and poems in which Keats was not in some way being funny.”


All of the above uses of Negative Capability, which serve their own ends while misrepresenting the full, complex, multi-faceted, critical, mercurial, sometimes humorous but always fully human Keats, achieve a frightening apotheosis in Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography. Plumly is very taken by the idea of Negative Capability — he refers often to it his book Argument and Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry, especially in his essays “Seasons of Mists” and “Reading Autumn,” essays on Keats and Keats’s “To Autumn.” And, in fact, Plumly — who links Keats’s walking with his Negative Capability, as walking allowed Keats “to separate himself from his troubles long enough to write as if they didn’t exist” — clearly intends his biography to be negatively capable: in his preface, Plumly notes that he, instead of treating Keats’s life in a linear fashion, wanted to write “with ‘disinterestedness,’” wanted “to walk around in Keats’s life and art, not simply through them.”


The problem, though, with Plumly’s biography is its selection of topics to walk around: Plumly selects topics which only reinforce the picture of a Batean, Negative Capability Keats, and excludes many details that would argue against this picture, including Keats’s growing interest in concentrating his writing on political journalism, comedy and satire. With such exclusions, and aided and abetted by the book’s Negatively Capable approach, Plumly traps himself in a terrible contradiction: though he spends much of his book arguing that Keats did not die from psychological torment — caused by bad reviews of his early work — Plumly ends up arguing Keats in fact did die of psychological causes: from having written the perfect — that is, perfectly negatively capable — “To Autumn.” About Keats’s decline and death, Plumly states:


No wonder the doctors were confused as to what was ailing Keats: in a way it was neither this nor that but everything, manna as well as matter. And it starts with his most perfect poem, as if an open circle had been drawn to close. That is to say, the recognition of what is true and fated for years arrives like a vision, and that vision is “To Autumn,” whose emotional and spiritual realities represent both a full cup and exhaustion, their sequence and consequence. It is as if Keats’s only choice after “To Autumn” is to die…


As if Keats’s death was fated, as if Keats actually chose to die. Instead, what such thinking reveals is the degree to which Plumly — a fine poet, a generally sharp critic, and a devoted student and scholar of Keats — is so blinded by Negative Capability that he is willing to sacrifice Keats to the idea of Negative Capability. Far from being an isolated incident, virtually every use of Negative Capability — which so venerates the use of the term over the facts that surround it, and thus almost always courts such recklessness — can be conceived of as aiding and abetting this outcome. Much less a destiny for Keats, Plumly’s book in fact reveals the destiny of Negative Capability, and not even so much the substance — however convoluted — of Negative Capability but rather mostly the term itself: it is hard to imagine Keats being so sacrificed to, say, Shakespearean Capability.


Keats, oddly, probably would be somewhat sympathetic — to a point. Keats loved language — he, of course, knew its seductive power, employing it, feeling it. Keats notes that he “look[s] upon fine Phrases like a Lover,” and, in the process of differentiating “[t]hings real, things semi-real, and no things,” the real things Keats names are “existences of Sun Moon & Stars and passages of Shakespeare.” Thus, Keats might understand the power of the tendency — however mistaken — to think of the term Negative Capability as a real thing.


However, Keats also was wary of seductions. As poems such as Lamia and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” reveal, Keats knew that while enchantments can supply visions they also often offer illusions and nightmares. Thus, not surprisingly, Keats also loved and employed language for its ability to critique and awaken, to toll us back from our enchantments, to smoke language’s and language user’s tendencies to set up smoke and mirrors.


And Keats, interestingly, offers us a perfect phrase to employ in order to smoke Negative Capability. In the midst of an extended, vivacious letter — written during mid- to late- January, 1820, that is, four months after composing “To Autumn” — to his sister-in-law, Georgiana Keats, a correspondent with whom Keats liked to share witty repartee, Keats writes,


T wang dillo dee… This you must know is the Amen to nonsense. I know many places where Amen should be scratched out, rubb’d over with a pou[n]ce made of Momus’s little finger bones, and in its place ‘T wang-dillo-dee,’ written. This is the word I shall henceforth be tempted to write at the end of most modern Poems — Every American book ought to have it. It would be a good distinction in Saciety. My Lords Wellington, Castlereagh and Canning and many more would do well to wear T wang-dillo-dee written on their Backs instead of wearing ribbands in their Button holes — How many people would go sideways along walls and quickset hedges to keep their T wang dillo dee out of sight, or wear large pigtails to hide it. However there would be so many that the T wang dillo dees would keep one another in Countenance — … Thieves and Murderers would gain rank in the world — for would any of them have the poorness of Spirit to condescend to be a T wang dillo dee — “I have robb’d in many a dwelling house, I have kill’d many a fowl many a goose and many a Man,” (would such a gentleman say) but thank heaven I was never yet a T wang dillo dee” — Some philosophers in the Moon who spy at our Globe as we do at theirs say that T wang dillo dee is written in large Letters on our Globe of Earth — They say the beginning of the T is just on the spot where London stands. London being built within the Flourish — wan reach downward and slant as far a[s] Tumbutoo in africa, the tail of the G. goes slap across the Atlantic into the Rio della Plata — the remainder of the letters wrap round new holland and the last e terminates on land we have not yet discovered. However, I must be silent, these are dangerous times to libel a man in, much more a world.


Now here, undoubtedly, is Keats, and Keats in full. We know from its repeated uses that “T wang dillo dee” certainly is the phrase Keats used, and though “T wang dillo dee” was a common-enough phrase during Keats’s day — it is believed to generally refer to the twanging of a stringed instrument and is a nonsense refrain used in many popular ballads and songs, including one in John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera, a work Keats greatly admired — Keats makes this absurdity his own. Keats’s T wang dillo dee is hilarious — all those people trying to hide their “T wangs”! But it also is critical, especially of pomp and false solemnity, and the acquiescence embedded in an agreeable “Amen.” What Keats wants instead, and what he enacts in the above quotation, is a comic undermining, or overriding, or over-writing of such attitudes and behaviors — pounce, according to Rollins, is “a fine powder used to prevent ink from spreading when writing over an erasure,” and Momus, god of comedy.


Though this brilliant, hilarious, critical Keats is not the Keats we’re used to experiencing when we are given Negative Capability Keats, I’m tempted to think that if Keats saw the uses to which the phrase Negative Capability was being put — uses that include so many caveats, and that recently culminated in a declaration that it was proper for Keats to have died after writing “To Autumn” — that he would be tempted to strike out that term, which has been, and continues to be, a solemn Amen, or a blessing, to so much nonsense, and replace it with T wang dillo dee.


Such an undertaking, in fact, would be particularly Keatsian, and in its own way a real homage to the Keats’s fuller life. Keats’s friend Benjamin Haydon reports a story told to him about Keats: “when he could just speak, instead of answering questions put to him he would always make a rhyme to the last word people said, and then laugh.” And we should follow Keats’s lead: prepared to laugh and awaken, even if just to test the term Negative Capability, every time we read, or hear, or are ourselves about to use the term, we should try its rhyme: Negative Capability? T wang dillo dee…

Michael Theune

Michael Theune

Michael Theune is the editor of Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns (Teachers & Writers, 2007) and host of the blog His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals, including, most recently, American Poet: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets, Anti-, The Versus Anthology, and Pleiades. He teaches English at Illinois Wesleyan University. “Negative Capability T wang dillo dee” was supported with a grant from Illinois Wesleyan University. Jessica Block and Valerie Higgins assisted with research.

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