Friday 3 September 2010

Negative Capability (1)

One of the most influential phrases in the history of English poetry is John Keats's Negative Capability.

I asked friends and colleagues if they thought anyone in our visual arts ever considered Negative Capability as part of their working method. All the responses I received suggested that no one local would think it even useful.

Yet, I am a bit stuck on Negative Capability as it evokes sensations of the unnerved Gothic.

I have been thinking about the biography that Eric McCormick wrote on Charles Armitage Brown who immigrated to New Zealand and died at New Plymouth. [Eric used to speak about Negative Capability a lot as being a creative inspiration that was in opposition to the footnoted symbolism of T.S. Eliot].

Brown was an irritable and testy character but he remained Keats's closest and most loyal friend. He made the drawing which I have illustrated above in 1819, when the poet was 24 years old.

If you read every written word by John Keats that remains, you will only ever encounter Negative Capability once. It appears in the letter that he wrote to his two brothers. I have transcribed it below as it is an astonishing letter. Most of Keats's letters are memorable because he is always inventing words like obsoletion:

Sunday [21 Dec. 1817]

I must crave your pardon for not having written ere this. I saw Kean return to the public in 'Richard III.', and finely he did it, and, at the request of Reynolds, I went to criticize his Luke in Riches. The critique is in to-day's 'Champion', which I send you, with the Examiner, in which you will find very proper lamentation on the obsoletion of Christmas Gambols and pastimes: but it was mixed up with so much egotism of that drivelling nature that pleasure is entirely lost. Hone, the publisher's trial, you must find very amusing; and, as Englishmen, very encouraging-his Not Guilty is a thing, which not to have been, would have dulled still more Liberty's Emblazoning-Lord Ellenborough has been paid in his own coin-Wooler and Hone have done us an essential service - I have had two very pleasant evenings with Dilke, yesterday and to-day, and am at this moment just come from him, and feel in the humour to go on with this, began in the morning, and from which he came to fetch me. I spent Friday evening with Wells, and went next morning to see Death on the Pale Horse. It is a wonderful picture, when West's age is considered; But there is nothing to be intense upon; no woman one feels mad to kiss, no face swelling into reality-The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth. Examine 'King Lear', and you will find this exemplified throughout; but in this picture we have unpleasantness without any momentous depth of speculation excited, in which to bury its repulsiveness - The picture is larger than 'Christ rejected'.

I dined with Haydon the Sunday after you left, and bad a very pleasant day, I dined too (for I have been out too much lately) with Horace Smith, and met his two Brothers, with Hill and Kingston, and one Du Bois. They only served to convince me, how superior humour is to wit in respect to enjoyment-These men say things which make one start, without making one feel; they are all alike; their manners are alike; they all know fashionables; they have a mannerism in their eating and drinking, in their mere handling a Decanter-They talked of Kean and his low company -Would I were with that Company instead of yours, said I to myself! I know such like acquaintance will never do for me and yet I am going to Reynolds on Wednesday. Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

Shelley's poem is out, and there are words about its being objected to as much as "Queen Mab" was. Poor Shelley, I think he has his Quota of good qualities, in sooth la!!

Write soon to your most sincere friend and affectionate Brother
John [Keats]


Anonymous said...

A poet, I am fascinated by the idea that visual artists wouldn't find Keats' notion of negative capability "useful." Would the visual equivalent of negative capability not be an expanse of white space in the (long-since-hegemonic) 2-d canvas? Would be greatly interested in knowing if this discourse exists in any form, anywhere.

Ron Brownson said...

Thanks for your comment about my posting on the source of Keats's statement about 'negative capability'. The fact that I have never encountered a visual artist who has mentioned it probably relates to the notion that when one says the phrase it seems like an archaic use of language. Notions of 'negative reinforcement' would probably feel more meaningful. Maybe it is because negative capability is concerned with the self-consciousness of creativity. That notion is uber-unfashionable. Here, in New Zealand, if you spoke about focussing the direction of one's own creativity one would probably be deemed a tall poppy!