Summary and Analysis of Letter to J.H. Reynolds (3 May 1818):
The letter begins by talking about the acquisition of knowledge. The more you acquire, the more you realize that every area of study -- "every department" -- is in the service of a "great" general whole. Keats is, therefore, happy that he kept his medical books, so that he can continue to study them from time to time. He then notes that knowledge balances one during experiences of "high Sensations" -- i.e. emotional upheaval.
Keats notes that Reynolds seems to be making his way through the same mental/emotional "labyrinth" that he (Keats) has explored, except that Reynolds appears to have been experiencing even more dismal emotions. Wordsworth has been a help for Keats in this area. Calling forth another famed English poet, Keats wonders whether John Milton's comparatively "less anxiety for Humanity" is a result of his not seeing as far as the "epically passionate" Wordsworth. Wordsworth's humanity-bound philosophy seems to have personally resonated with Keats, as Keats writes, "Axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses." Mentioning Byron's adage, "Knowledge is sorrow" (a sentiment which, after all, goes back to the Hebrew Bible), Keats takes the idea of knowledge a couple of steps further, arguing that "Sorrow is wisdom" and that "Wisdom is folly."
As a way of showing "how tall I [Keats] stand by the giant [Wordsworth]," Keats describes his view of "human life" (although his view seems mainly to be a reflection of intellectual life only). Life is a "Mansion of Many Apartments," of which Keats knows only two. The first is the "infant or thoughtless chamber," where we remain as long as we do not think. Eventually, through the "awakening of the thinking principle within us," we continue on to the second chamber, "Maiden Thought." At first, we are enchanted with the "light" of new knowledge. However, with that knowledge comes increasingly sharp awareness of "the heart and nature of Man." We learn that "the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression." The room darkens then, and the doors begin to open, but it is impossible to tell now where any of them lead. This, naturally, leads to a feeling of disorientation, as "in a Mist." Such is "the burden of the Mystery."
Keats believed that Wordsworth had certainly reached the second chamber and been led beyond by his curiosity. He points out that Wordsworth's poem "Tintern Abbey" retraces this intellectual journey. "Tintern Abbey", for its part, is a poem about the inevitable passage of time. Wordsworth returns to a beloved place from childhood and reflects on how his memory of the place, over the past five years, has helped him cope with unpleasant feelings about the chaos of the world. Wordsworth himself describes what he calls "the burden of the mystery" as the "heavy and the weary weight/ Of all this unintelligible world." Keats suggests that it may not be Wordsworth's individual genius that allows him to be "deeper" than Milton; it may be a function of the different eras in which they were writing. Milton, who wrote in the seventeenth century, was writing in the midst of the Age of Enlightenment that followed the schism between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. He wrote during a time when "Men had got hold of certain points and resting places in reasoning which were too newly born to be doubted."
Because "Milton, as a Philosopher, had sure as great powers of Wordsworth," Keats concludes that "a mighty providence subdues the mightiest minds to the service of the time being, whether it be in human knowledge or Religion." In other words, a writer's mode of thought is undoubtedly shaped, and in some cases repressed, by his or her environment.
Summary and Analysis of Letter to Richard Woodhouse (27 October 1818):
First, Keats describes the "poetical character itself," which is marked by its not having a character and a sense of self. The poet is like a "cameleon" (chameleon) which reflects whatever environment it finds itself in. Bound up with this, the poet speculates on positive as well as negative things, and does no harm, because the poet's ultimate aim is speculation itself. Keats argues, somewhat paradoxically, that "A poet is the most unpoetical thing in existence, because he has no Identity." He writes that he himself has an almost "porous" relationship to other people: when he is socializing, "the identity of every one in the room begins to so press upon me that I am...annihilated." He goes on to say that this phenomenon is not limited to his interactions with adults; he would be the same when spending time among children.
Keats then speaks of his ambition "to do the world some good." He hopes to "be spared" from illness, since he thinks that his most ambitious work will come in his "maturer years." He also writes that it is not admiration or acclaim which pushes him to do his work; it is "the mere yearning and fondness I have for the Beautiful" that propels him. But, as a "chameleon poet" himself, he points out that "even now I am not speaking from myself."
Summary and Analysis of Letter to George and Tom Keats (21 December 1817):
In this letter, for the first and only time, Keats mentions his now-famous theory of negative capability. This capability is described as "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Keats mentions the poet Coleridge as an example of someone without this capability, someone who, because he was "incapable of remaining content with half knowledge," would let a "fine isolated verisimilitude" (truth) go by in pursuit of a higher logical system.
Keats did not favor such a reductive approach; he himself was more inclined to pursue what he called “the beautiful” without feeling any special need to place it within a higher rational or logical system. He would encourage poets to be purely receptive and to "negate" themselves in order to "receive" the beautiful and poetic. The objective is to fuse emotional intensity with the object, so that the object becomes representative of the emotion -- as in Keats' odes, such as "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale". The origin of the term negative capability is not clear, but some scholars have suggested that Keats' education in chemistry and medicine may have influenced him. The "negative pole" of an electric current is passive and receptive, much as the ideal poet is.