Keat's Philosophy

Discussion on the works of John Keats.

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Keat's Philosophy

Postby Guest » Wed Apr 16, 2003 3:07 pm

Hello, I'm studying Keats for A-Level, just wondering if anyone can help with a few confusions I have? :mrgreen:

Mainly it's about Keat's philosophy. He states that
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know"
What does this mean? I've looked at it lots, and still can't fully understand what he means!

Negative capability has something to do with Keat's philosophy too - shown in La Belle Dame sans Merci. Can someone explain this concept?

Also, in Lamia, the philosopher is seen as the bad guy, who reveals too much, brings people down to Earth, as it were, and evetually destroys the imagination: i.e. Lamia. Dows Keats reject philosophy because it disregards negative capability?

Hope someone can help me with this confusing poet!

JK's philosophy

Postby Despondence » Sun Apr 20, 2003 12:38 pm

I've been meaning to put together a post about Keats' philosophy for some time, but it's not an easy topic... I can get you started on some of the points, if not aswering your questions in full.

"Negative capability" is mentioned (first?) in a letter to Tom and George, 21 December 1817, and he cites it as a necessary quality that goes into the forming of a "Man of Achievement" - in this context, of course the Poet. The way I read it, JK sees a positive quality in the ability to be comfortable with mysteries and doubts; to be able to move within uncertainties without always striving for undisputable fact. The quest for reason has no place within poetry, and while a noble pursuit for some men, it does not behoove the poet to even try; in fact, with a great poet, "...the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration."

Precisely why he calls this feature "negative capability" I don't know - feels rather positive to me. I guess one could say that La belle dame sans merci is some sort of manifestation of negative capability, although I never thought about it that way before. In a sense, the poem does not make a lot of sense - it only strives to conjure beauty in words and imagry without encumbering the reader with constant reality checks, which would disperse the mystery and mar the beauty of the poem. If this interpretation is close to the truth, I suppose Endymion, Hyperion, Lamia and many other works are also expressions of JK's perfection of negative capability.

As to your other questions, I have not much to offer right now. You might want to check the thread "Ode to a Grecian Urn" in the "Poems, Odes and Plays" forum, where you might get some hints on the meaning of the "Beuty is truth, truth beauty" &c.

Postby Guest » Sat May 31, 2003 7:25 pm

My understanding of negative capability varies a little from the one above but that's what ulletin boards are for! When Keats talks about negative capability he is talking about an ultimately receptive state of being/mind in which the process of true inspiration could take place. Much of Keats' philosophy revolves around his rejection of 'the weariness the fever and the fret', that is to say the inescapable transience of life (remember the death of close family members etc). In reaching for negative capability, Keats is attempting to transcend his senses, as they are of course the ultimate expression of our mortality.
It gets complicated because having at times seemingly achieved this creative escape through the medium of poetry 'already with thee!tender is the night', Keats then realises that this stae of being removes him from the experience of the senses. All of his poetry indicates the delight he took in his senses, he positively revels in sensation and imagery, in fact this seems to be the only certainty in his poetry. This is where we hit the essential paradox in Keats' work and what, in my opinion makes him so great. The figure of Apollonius in Lamia that was mentioned is ideal to illustrate this. Keats is attempting to create a perfect, more real (in the sense of ultimately truthful) world in his poetry ie. the haven of Lamia and Lycius, but as a rational being and a mortal his poetry constantly expresses his mortality, ie his delight in the senses etc. There is a fundamental paradox in the way Keats views himself as a poet. Philosophy can 'unweave a rainbow' but as the very image suggests, what is lost is vividly beautiful but ultimately ephemeral, an unsustainable illusion.
Phew....complicated stuff. Look at pretty much everyone of Keats' poems and you'll see this conflict between the desire for the perfect escape/illusion of negative capability expressed through poetry and a paradoxical desire not to become 'a sod' when the nightingale is pouring forth his soul abroad 'in such an ecstasy'. Did you reach the end?!Well done!! :D

Postby Despondence » Sun Jun 01, 2003 2:00 pm

Yes, I made it to the end, and I'd venture that your first paragraph is entirely compatible with what I wrote, although you apply a different angle. Whereas I looked only at the short passage in the letter mentioned above and built my own interpretation from there, you have taken it several steps beyond that, which leads me to my question: what other sources are there from Keats' own hand or contemporary narratives (i.e. not interpretations) that say something concrete about negative capability? Myself, I have not seen anything beyond that letter, and would be very interested to read a more extensive first-hand account of NC.

Postby Guest » Thu Jun 05, 2003 8:05 pm

Myself I'm not surwe whether my understanding of negative capability coincides with yours. I think crucially, you talk about Keats achieving a state of being in which he is comfortable with the uncertainties and mysteries of life. I see this as very different, rather the desire to transcend such questioning, in fact to resolve it, ie there no longer are uncertainties once negative capability is achieved. That's why I think it's perfectly possible to argue that Keats never actually achieved it.
You're right, there are no other direct references, in fact there is a school of thought that says that the copyist for that particular letter may have misread Keats' hurried writing and that the poet may in fact have created a completely different name for this creative process. There are no other references to negative capability specifically but this philosophy is by no means limited to Keats, it's merely his funny word for it, he was a wordsmith so doubtless he felt the need to create his own poetic terminology! Lots of the Romantic poets believed in transcendign the senses in the search for the ultimately internalised inspirational experience, that's why Coleridge took opium and wrote beautiful things like Khubla Khan! Keats just had a more unique take on the whole thing.

Postby Lord Byron » Tue Aug 12, 2003 1:58 am

18th-century Europe (at least England and France) idealized reason and thought that man's highest aspiration was to solve all the world's mysteries and smooth out human society by remaking it on a solid foundation of reason.

English poets exalted reason by insisting that poetry presented a moral, socially improving message and that it adhere to established poetic forms.

The romantic movement, both in France and England, moved away from the idealization of reason and began emphasizing other human faculties: sentiment, the imagination, the sense of the beautiful.

Keats makes it clear in the letter that he rejects reason in favor some kind of poetic sensibility, and negative capability is his attempt to explain why. He felt that the greatest poets were the ones whose work was full of contradictions and mysteries, and was not resolveable into a simple moral message.
Lord Byron

Postby girl » Mon Jun 06, 2005 9:49 pm

"...negative capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason...that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all considerations..."

For me negative c is all about the ability to see only the beauty in something. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn" he claims that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty that is all ye know on earth and all ye need know" and I think that this derives from his idea of negative capability, we only want to see beauty and so if all we can see is beauty then this is all we need. Negative capability makes this beauty true because it is all that can be considered. I also think it is explored in "Ode On Melancholy" he asks that

"if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes"

Because to be reminded of beauty takes every other consideration away.

Why then is it called negative capability? This is explored in Lamia. Lycius is in a state of negative capability in the forest he loves lamia, and sees only her beauty, not the odity of the reaction of his tutor nor of the strange circumstance of their love, and the appearance of their invisible house. However the transition between this state of nc and reality not only destroys their love but the lovers themselves, and so is a negative thing.
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Postby Steen » Thu Jun 09, 2005 10:09 pm

Its two diffrent sides of the sea here.
Sceince is the serch for truth.
Poetry is the serch for beauty.
Keats has picked the side of beauty and condems the serch for truth. I think he feels that truth istelf is not bad, but the remorsless and determined way in which sience would tear apart anything to get answers. While truth found by sience is wonderful, the cost is often a part of the beauty that goes with it.
What sounds more wonderful
A) Love is a joining in of souls and bodys where you find the one person that makes you feel increable and happy that you wish to spend the rest of you life with.
B) Love is a illusion created by the body whilst under the influnace of chemicals, hormoans and the primal urge to breed.

What would make a better poem, what is worth thinking about, writing about and liveing for, the reaction of the soul or the reaction of chemicals?
Dispite the objections of two logic-thinking lovers I know, I give myself a bit of negative capablity and ingnore the truth behind it. I know the feeling of being in love is wonderful without needing to know what my hormones are doing to help it.
Keats claims that Beauty, feeling, senseation will give you more truth then a dusty text book telling you that emotions are nice/bad.
Thats what I think anyway.
You don't love a women because she is beatiful, she is beatiful because you love her.
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