The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Discussion on the works of John Keats.

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The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Postby Ravenwing » Wed Apr 01, 2015 12:11 am

WHEN reading John Keats' "The Human Seasons (both versions)," I noticed that some of its lines seem to give further definition as to what Keats meant when he mentioned "Negative Capability" in one of his letters from 1817.

"he hath his Autumn ports
And havens of repose when his tired wings
Are folded up, and he content to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook."

AND,

"quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook."

IF those lines be about Negative Capability, then that means Negative Capability is autumnal, and similar to the emotions that a person might feel if an aged family member of theirs has been suffering from a serious illness, and has been laid to rest and is now at peace. It is bittersweet for the family—a sense of sadness for the loss of their beloved is experienced, but there is also a sense of calm amongst them, for there is comfort in knowing that their beloved is no longer in pain, and there is comfort in the belief that their beloved's soul has become free to move forward in accordance with the wisdom of their family religion.

AS Keats himself in his letter from 1817 did describe Negative Capability as "without any irritable reaching after fact and reason", it seems that Keats did apply the word "capability" in that letter of his "as the reach towards fact and reason", and that its negation—its lack of capability—must therefore be about the things in life, or beyond, which animals and humans using only their senses can never be scientifically certain about, because "modern science" is limited to the senses, whether those sense be naked, microscopic, or telescopic. Thus "modern science" is incapable of proving or disproving the existence of God, and the afterlife, as there cannot be built a microscope or telescope that is powerful enough with which to peer into Valhalla, Olympus, or Heaven. The mystery of human existence—why do we exist? what is the afterlife like?—is one of the joys of the devoutly religious, isn't it? The afterlife that those of us whom be spiritual have faith in, 'tis utterly beyond the scope of modern scientific investigation—'tis fully beyond the reach of mere animal fact and reason: the kind that does not include spiritual belief. Whilst living on Earth, we are not capable of knowing in a modern scientific manner as to what the afterlife is like, but we are capable of believing that the afterlife does exist, and the most spiritual of us—the world's true poets (such as John Keats)—are capable of knowing in a visionary manner what it is like.

I put forth the argument which claims that Keats' descriptions of fairytales and mythical lands, are examples of him using Negative Capability in order to describe what "science" is not capable of describing, and yet what places he believes does nonetheless exist. This interpretation of "Negative Capability" is in stark contrast to atheism, and materialism, which posits that God does not exist, and that there is no such thing as an afterlife, as neither can be proven to exist by means of mere animal fact and reason. But the Viking funeral which consisted of a ship that contained the deceased, was set afloat, and then lit on fire, because Valhalla could not be sailed to by means of an earthly vessel, for its location be a mystery of which only the soul can journey to. It is only the poet, and never the scientist, whose imagination be so soulful that it can provide description to mere mortals, of Valhalla, and other religious lands, such as Olympus, and Heaven.

THE French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, in his famous "lettres du voyant" which he wrote in 1871 when 16 years old, speaks with the same spirit: of the poet as a prophet, as a seer, as a visionary, as did Keats at 22 years old in his "Negative Capability" letter from 1817. A strange coincidence it is, that both of those years contain the same numbers.

THIS "Negative Capability" philosophy of his, is why I think that Keats was an astrologer, like his hero Shakespeare was. There are many works by Shakespeare and Keats that each make mention of astrology, and none in a disparaging way.

WHAT other works and their lines by Keats do you suppose might provide example for what he meant by Negative Capability?

From Ravenwing.
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Re: The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Postby Raphael » Fri Nov 06, 2015 2:10 pm

Keats was not into astrology, never studied it or mentioned it. Just because you are heavily into it doesn't mean that he was. :roll:
Astrology has no basis in science anyway- it is just for fun, not meant to be taken seriously.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrology_and_science
John....you did not live to see-
who we are because of what you left,
what it is we are in what we make of you.

Peter Sanson, 1995.
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Re: The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Postby Cathat906 » Thu Sep 24, 2020 9:51 pm

Astronomy only really became a distinct discipline and completely separate from Astrology during the Enlightenment. Keats certainly had some exposure to astronomy and there are occasional astronomical references in his poems, including On First Looking into Chapman's Homer. Keats was given a copy of John Bonnycastle's Introduction to Astronomy as an academic prize at Clarke's Academy in 1811. There are also reports that one of the teachers John Rylands used to arrange the pupils including Keats on the school grounds in the form of an astrological orrery depicting the solar system. I have to agree, I am unaware of any specific references to Astrology as we currently understand it, in Keats work . His influences for poems like Endymion, Hyperion and the Fall of Hyperion are I think best described as mythological rather than astrological and appear to be derived primarily from Tooke's Pantheon.

Keat's theory of Negative Capability has however had some interesting applications outside poetry, including psychotherapeutic work to assist empathic understanding.
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Re: The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Postby CasaMagni » Fri Sep 25, 2020 11:32 am

It surprises me somewhat that Astronomy didn't play a bigger role in the philosophy of the great poets. Yes, Shelley mentioned the Comet of 1811 in his letters and Keats as you say won an astronomy-related prize, but generally the subject was relegated to the sidelines, in favour of more earthly considerations. And yet it is such a big topic in every sense, and in those days there were even less hard facts than there are now; for example they didn't even know the distance to the nearest star and had no idea what might be the parameters for life on other planets. I've never heard of any great poet possessing even a small telescope in order to see more clearly the wonders of the Universe for themselves. Strange.
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Re: The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Postby Cathat906 » Sat Sep 26, 2020 8:16 pm

I guess one possible reason is that Keats and the other Romantic poets were in part a reaction to the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. In December 1817 at Haydon's 'Immortal Dinner' Keats and Lamb agreed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to prismatic colours, then drank a toast to Newton's health and to the confusion of mathematics. Later in Lamia he expressed these views in his famous passage on unweaving the rainbow. Although he had a scientific education, he must have felt that the reductionist principles of science did not sit easily with literature and poetry.
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Re: The Philosophy of Keats: Negative Capability

Postby CasaMagni » Sun Sep 27, 2020 10:47 am

Yes I think that's the case... but does science really take away the wonder? Even if the rainbow is reduced to 'prismatic colours', we then have to explain prismatic colours I would have thought... every answer provokes another question. But science and poetry have indeed always been seen as occupying opposite ends of the spectrum so to speak.. inaccurately and regrettably imo.
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