May Cease to Be,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode to Autumn.” More recently I find myself returning to his last unfinished epic poem, The Fall of Hyperion. Now, well into my own autumnal years, I find Keats’ accomplishment even more awe-inspiring than I did when in my twenties. Even before giving up his …/ planned profession as a surgeon to pursue his love of poetry, he set himself the ambitious task of reading Homer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, and most of the classics. Ironically, though he shifted from the practice of medicine to the craft of poetry, he remained in the deepest sense a healer. It was not by accident that his favoured Greek god Apollo presided over both medicine and poetry—the healing arts. Though Keats laboured at his craft continuously, his letters and poems suggest he was able to allow something much larger than mere literary ambition flow through him. He set his aims high, choosing Shakespeare as his model, whom he also studied with the fullest attention. Keats was able to make such enormous strides because he had in abundance what he called the power of “negative capability” – a precondition for art of the highest order. The term “negative capability” arises only once in Keats’ letters, which read to me as prose poems. Often in our contemporary emails, we compose, click and send before rereading. Yet Keats’ missives are epistolary gifts of contemplation. Some of his letters start, pause and resume over days or even weeks, more like journal entries. They are not only among the best letters ever written, but often warrant as much study as his sonnets and ballads. They are part and parcel of the body of his work. Because many of them are addressed to his family and close friends, they remain intimate, natural, lucid, revelatory. In a letter written to his brothers George and Tom on Dec. 21, 1817 Keats shares his famous passage on “negative capability” (itself a rich oxymoron) in the context of what he most admired about his hero Shakespeare: … several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a [Writer] of Achievement – especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a [person] is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason ... A later remark in a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse (Oct. 27, 1818) fleshes out Keats’ sense of the value of remaining in uncertainty without trying to resolve it through the workings of ordinary rational www.dialogue.ca
thought. He defines the “poetical character” as that which transcends but includes the merely personal: [It is] … not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it 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 an Iago [the antagonist of Shakespeare’s Othello] as an Imogen [Shakespeare’s heroine in Cymbeline]. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the cameleon [sic] Poet. This disappearance of the writer’s ego into her art requires a letting go of the false, constructed self we think we are when cut off from each other and from the wholeness of the world. In Keats’ poems, “negative capability” is grounded in humility: listening, stepping lightly, waiting, opening, being with process. What this “capability” relinquishes is grasping, holding, our greed in relation to what we assume is ours to control. Keats teaches us the value of respect for the greater beauty that contains our personal pain and losses. This more expansive consciousness holds our sorrows within a larger, more compassionate plenitude. And that mysterious fullness, replete with mystery, is something we The earliest surviving can experience directly, but portrait of John Keats, charcoal drawing by cannot control either in life Joseph Severn, 1816 or in art. Since my first exposure to Keats in high school, I have had occasion to explore some of the works of the unitive mystics of various spiritual traditions. Keats’ phrase “negative capability” for me ties to what has been called “the apophatic” way. The term “apophatic” (an aspect of “negative theology”) has to do with experiencing realities that cannot be easily named or grasped by mere reason. Rather than affirming what we believe about God, the world, or ourselves, the via negativa requires a letting go of divisive names and concepts. We are invited to be held instead of holding. In apophatic wisdomteaching, waiting in stillness allows us to enter more expansive modes of being. The way of unknowing is at base not one of passivity, but an active opening to a wholeness we can barely imagine. Jesus speaks of “dying to self.” In Sufism the term for letting go of the certainties of the ego is even stronger: fana, often translated as “annihilation.” However, fana entails the loss of an assumed self, not the ultimate loss of the …/ VOL. 30, NO. 1, AUTUMN 2016
Published on Sep 15, 2016
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