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Keats Negative Capability: a critique.

Indranil Sarkar John Keats (1795-1821, the Adonais of Shelley, is unquestionably the most aesthetic conscious English poets ever. His short poetic career of a little more than 5 years [1816-1821] is the crown and glory of English Romanticism. Keats did not propagate his idealism through propaganda essays like Shelley, Coleridge or Wordsworth. He was not pantheistic like Wordsworth to perceive divine presence in nature. Neither did he write poems on self-praise like Byron. Likewise French Revolution could not cast any stamp on his verse as well. He was a pure poet; a pure artist. His poetry was, as if, the offerings of a sincere devotee to the altar of Aphrodite. Walter Peter called him the only objective poet after Shakespeare and also the last. His objectivity was parallel to that of Shakespeare only. And for all these reasons, while commenting on his poems written between 1819 and 1820 such as Lamia, Isabella, Ode to autumn, Ode on a Grecian Urn, etc. even a scholarly critic of classical school like Matthew Arnold remarked that He (Keats) was with Shakespeare. Besides his concept of Beauty (i.e. Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty), he had no other philosophy to preach. However, his concept of Beauty was an extension of the Oriental concept of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram, which he derived from his study of Bhagavad-Gita and other Oriental scriptures. It was certainly not from Platos idealistic concept of Beauty, as speculated earlier. In this regard it would be relevant to mention that like most of the Romantics John Keats also was influenced by the Hindu scripture The Bhagavad-Gita. Prof. Krishna Gopal Srivastava, presently the vice-chancellor of Allahabad

University and erstwhile a guest lecturer in the University of Glasgow, had shown this aspect of the Romantics in his invaluable Research thesis titled Bhagbada-Gita and the English Romantic movement: A Study in Influence (2002)i In that book, Prof. Srivastava cited documentary evidences of the fact that Sir Wilkins (Charles) and Sir William Jones studied the Bhagbada-Gita and translated it into English in 1785. The translated version of the BhagbadaGita received tremendous interest in England, especially among the unorthodox Romantic-intelligentsia of the period. That is why in most of their poems one could detect apparently unintelligible philosophical propositions like non-attachment, transmigration of souls, desire-less work, universality of human beings etc. As such, there exists enough ground to presume that John Keats philosophy of Beauty was rooted not in Plato but in the Oriental religious Philosophy of Satyam, Sivam and Sundaram. The view is far more acceptable because of the fact that Keats did not know Greek and all his Hellenic ideas were rooted in the translation of Homer and Virgil. It is sure that he did not read Platos works in original. So far as Keatss notion on the poetic diction is concerned, he advocated the principle of Negative-Capability. His concept was not theorized in any manifesto like Lyrical Ballads or The defense of Poetry. He expressed his idea of negative-capability in a personal letter to his brothers George and Thomas; and that too, only once. In his letter dated 22nd December, 1817 to his brothers George and Thomas, John Keats used his self-coined phrase Negative-Capabilityiiin order to express his view on Shakespeares greatness as a poet. Most probably from his intensive study of Shakespeare (especially King Lear), he derived his

conception of true poetic artistry. This, he held, as the secret of Shakespeares excellence. In Keats language Negative Capability is a mental condition when a poet is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason. He believed that Only Negative Capability could make any one metaphysical and material, as well as human at the same time.iii Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems. It is nothing but a certain shapelessness of personality, a peculiar power to obliterate oneself and flow into some other being and speak it from within.iv It is very similar to the interior monologue in the modern day stream of consciousness technique of narrating ones feelings. An interior monologue reveals the subconscious mind of a character. It cannot lie. It always projects the true feeling of the mind. As such a poet under the spell of Negative Capability speaks the truth about world and its happenings. And thus the poetic art attains perfection. It is the quality of only a genius in artwork. In another letter Keats said, the poetical character... has no self; it is everything and nothing; it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated; it has as much delight in conceiving as an Iago or an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet... A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity, he is continually filling some other body. The very assertion reminds us of Geoffrey Chaucers humourous statement about himself in the Prologue to the Canterbury tales. Chaucer said that among all the Pilgrims, he was the only un-poetical man having no poetry

in him. Most probably Chaucers statement was not just a humour at the cost of himself; it was the revelation of the true poetic quality in him. Again, Negative Capability is a sublime expression of supreme empathy. Empathy means ones capacity for participating in, experiencing and understanding another's feelings or ideas. It's a creative craze to help the poet understand the world; understand different points of views or different cultures, so that he might be able to express them. The ability to see things from another's point of view, and to apply an openly imaginative creativity, are both critical poetic faculties to resolve the conflicts that exist between the author and the world. In this way, Negative Capability helps the poet to resolve the conflict in creativity.v Keats found all these qualities in Shakespeare to the fullest. Keats detected that Shakespeare had a seeing eye and an exquisitely receptive ear for perceiving the fathomless depths of human sensibility. He had the capacity for non-insistence on factual truth. He preferred using his own judgment like a stoical personality of antiquity or a warrior in the DharmaYudha as narrated in the BhagavadGita. His attitude was to watch and understand the mysterious drama of life as a spectator. This aloofness, non-attachment or non-involvement capacity helped him to remain unmoved even at the helm of the greatest odds of life and furnish proper and judicious visions about life. For this reason he could perceive Beauty of the natural world and the creation as a whole with all his senses. And all these ultimately made him the greatest ever poet of the world. John Keats used the term Negative Capability to describe the artist as receptive to the world and its natural phenomena, and to reject those who tried to formulate theories or categorical knowledge. In this concept, Keats posited

the world and the human to be of infinite depth. Such a position put Keats at the forefront of the Romantic Movement, and even at the cusp of modernism.vi(Li, Ou) The origin of the phrase is not yet confirmed. Some scholars have hypothesized that Keats was influenced by his studies of medicine and chemistry, and that it might be conceived of the passive and receptive negative pole of an electric current. The manner in which the negative pole receives the current from the positive pole, the poet receives impulses from a world that is full of mystery and doubt, which cannot be explained but which the poet can perceive and translate into art.vii(Goellnicht) According to the twentiethcentury British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, negative capability is the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing readymade or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.viii(Meg Harries)But, it may also be speculated that Keats derived the concept of Negative Capability from his acquaintances with the Oriental Philosophy of Non-Attachment preached in the Bhagbada-Gita. Because in the very beginning of Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna firmly declares : "You have the right to perform the action, but only to perform it, because from now on you should never again desire its fruits; the fruits of your action should never be the motive which sets you to work".ix It is really a surprise that what John Keats told about Poetic art as a harshly condemned immature poet, has been proved to be the strongest theory in the annals of Literary Criticism with the turn of the centuries. In the 21st century, when there is a general tendency to overwrite the traditional theories, Keats theory has gained the status of not only the most acceptable theories on poetic

process but also one of the foundations of the thoughts of modernist critics like Rolland Barth, Sigmund Saussure and Jacques Derrida. His opinion is looked upon by many a modern critics as the most influential cusp of modernists impersonality paradigm. It may be said that from Rolland Barths Death of the poet and Sigmund Saussures Readers Response Theory to Derridas theory of Deconstructionall emanates from Keats Negative Capability. In the Virginia Quarterly Review (April 1, 2005), the poet Galway Kinnell offers an expansive spin on Keatss notion of negative capability, suggesting that negative capability includes not just a metaphysical suspension of judgmentallowing mysteries to be mysteriesbut the Shakespearean power to obliterate oneself and walk, as it were, in the shoes of other beings (human and non-human!)x Keats' ideal poet was the impersonality of genius in art. He was convinced that fascination of mystery in other things and a sympathetic identification with them by the power of self-absorption in the objects around him was greatly needed by a poet than his private self. Keats Negative Capability, thus, appears to be the foundation of Derridas theory of deconstruction. Like the exponents of Deconstruction and Reader Response Theory, Keats objected to reaching after any philosophical goal and motive. Keatss preference for remaining in the state of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts (Keats: Letters: 43) rather than reaching after fact and reason (Keats: Letters: 43) echoes deconstructive aspects of Barthes and Derrida. Just as the exponents of Deconstruction and Readers Response Theory deny any identity of the author in a text, similarly Keats denied any personality and identity of a poet.

Keatss poetical character is the most unpoetical of anything in existence (Keats: Letters: 157). The poet is receptive, flexible and open-ended and participates in all types of experience even of the opposite nature and sides neither with one of them. Consequently, he never arrives at the final results but end in guesses.xi He is simply a commentator of the multi-dimensional or multifaceted nature of the worldly phenomenon; he is not the judge to pronounce the final verdict. Thus, the essence of Negative Capability may also be interpreted as the swanlike faculty to keep oneself unaffected or unstained even while living amidst mud and water. This is also the gist of the Bhagavad-Gita. So, it may be well justified to opine that John Keats not only understood the true nature of a great poet but also practiced it in his own poetic process. Instead of preaching any theory on nature and life, he simply felt the presence of all beauteous aspects of life with his five-senses as an artist. (He did not use the sixth-sense i, e Touchsensation. (Wilson Knight) Again, the critics who condemned him as a sensuous poet and sped up his death indirectly, could not understand the difference between sensuousness and sensuality. Keats was out and out sensuous but never sensual. And that is why even the modern critical canons have placed John Keats next only to Shakespeare. [2110]

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References & Web links:

.Bhagavad- Gita and the Romantic Movement: A Study in Influence(Macmillan India, New Delhi,2002)by Prof. Krishna Gopal Srivastava ii .Keats letter to his brothers George and Thomas ;dated 22nd December,1817 iii .Keats letter to his brothers George and Thomas ;dated 22nd December,1817 iv John Keats' letters and ideas by Stephanie in www.keatsian.co.uk/negative-capability.htm v .John Keats' letters and ideas by Stephanie in www.keatsian.co.uk/negative-capability.htm. vi .Li, Ou (2009). Keats and Negative Capability. Continuum International Publishing Group.p. ch. 4. vii . Goellnicht, Donald. Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness MA Thesis. (McMaster University, 1976), 13. http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/opendissertations/4675. viii .Meg Harris Williams, The Aesthetic Development (2009) ix .Bhagbada-Gita (Opening chapter)
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.Negative Capability Defined: Walking in Mysteriesand the Shoes of Otherswith Keats, Shakespeare, Whitmanand Barack Obama! By Santi arella.
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.Keatss Negative Capability: Parallel Concepts in Derridas Theory of Deconstruction by Prashant Mishra:Professor of English, Govt. S.V.P.G.College Neemuch(M.P.)