Keats' Poems and Letters

Negative Capability in Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn" College

In an 1817 letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, John Keats describes a manner of thought that he calls “negative capability.” According to Keats, this is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (968) For centuries, the meaning of this concept has been debated--a concept whose oxymoronic name seems to hint at its meaning. To consider “negative capability” with a reliance on rigid logic and precise definitions is to invite perplexity. Keats describes Shakespeare and his friend Samuel Coleridge as being among those gifted with the ability, implying that when released from the confining grip of reason, one is granted access to rich imaginative thought; the wellspring of inspiration from which all great poetry is conceived. This concept is best illuminated when looking at Keats’ own poetry, and perhaps nowhere more vividly than in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The ode stands as an ideal exercise of the concept and a showcase of its virtues. Within it are lessons, stories and bits of wisdom that stand as the fruits of the imaginative labor that is negative capability.

By writing an apostrophe to a fictional artifact, Keats is implying that there is...

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