We’ve been having so much fun with Keats & “Negative Capability” (& Yvor Winters–yes Aaron, I think I’ll mention him in every post from now on!) over at The God of The Machine that I thought I’d offer up my thoughts about the odes to you all (n.b. this little essay is six years old–and I wish I had time to fix it up, but I’m awfully busy just now):

Bate, Walter Jackson Bate. “Negative Capability,” in Harold Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Keats. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Hartman, Geoffrey. “Poem and Ideology: A Study of ‘To Autumn’, in Harold Bloom, ed. Modern Critical Views: John Keats. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Keats, John. “Letter from J. Keats to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817,” in Duncan Wu, ed. Romanticism: An Anthology, 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998; 1019.
—-. Ode to a Nightingale, in Wu; 1058-1060.
—-. Ode on a Grecian Urn, in Wu; 1060-61.
—-. To Autumn, in Wu; 1080.
Mayhead, Robin. John Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Keats’s “negative capability” letter asserts that the way to “true” insight lies in a cessation from the fruitless quest of questioning. The simplicity of this statement belies the real demands that a stance of passive receptivity makes upon the artist. Human beings are naturally curious; Keats himself was, and his struggle against this tendency is manifest in his works (particularly the odes). The Ode to a Nightingale builds toward a final stanza that voices the epistemological dilemma at the heart of all Western philosophical speculation. The Ode on a Grecian Urn derives entirely from the poet’s interrogation of his subject; although it differs from Nightingale in that, in the final stanza, the urn offers an answer designed to end all questioning. The effortless ambiguity of To Autumn, one of the last poems Keats ever wrote, is the hard-won result of his search for “a sense of beauty [that] overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration” (Letter, Wu, 1019).

The Ode to a Nightingale evinces very little of the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason,” which Keats privileges in his letter(Wu, 1019). The first seven stanzas of the ode exquisitely portray Keats’s sense of alienation, and its alleviation by his experience of the nightingale’s song, a symbol of permanence. Under its influence, the poet forgets “the weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here where men sit and hear each other groan” (Nightingale, Wu, 1058-59). Keats’s development–from a youth whose “heart aches” (Nightingale, 1058) to a man perceiving “charmed magic casements, opening on the foam/ Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn” (Nightingale, 1060)–is made to seem effortless by the poem; indeed, it is altogether too dreamlike. Keats himself awakens to this fact, upon enunciating the word “forlorn”.

The final stanza, in which Keats questions the reality of his experience, jeopardizes the validity of poet’s tribute to the nightingale. The poem ends with a question: “do I wake or sleep?” (Nightingale, 1060). In effect, this mood of ontological doubt consumes the serene body of the poem. It would be stretching matters to describe Keats’s question as “irritable”; the poet sounds too drowsy for that. However, he traces the peaceful feelings aroused within the preceding stanzas to fancy, “a deceiving elf” (Nightingale, 1060). In doing so, he demonstrates his unwillingness to be content with the “half-knowledge” (Letter, Wu, 1019) his vision has vouchsafed him.

The Ode on a Grecian Urn is more consistently inquisitive than the Nightingale ode. Indeed, it is a veritable catalogue of questions. However, they are ultimately of smaller import, as they concern specific objects of knowledge, rather than the nature of knowing. Furthermore, the Ode on a Grecian Urn ends with an answer, rather than a query. Nevertheless, the mood of the ode, prior to the famous final lines, is a searching one (there are ten questions in the poem, all addressed to the urn itself).

The poet is not satisfied merely to present the images painted on the pottery; he demands to know “what” and “who” they are. The poem is profoundly ambiguous: in the final analysis, the reader is unsure whether it valorizes or satirizes the pastoral images it evokes (in fact it does both). The ode manifests a great deal of uncertainty; however, there is scant evidence that the poet is comfortable with this (in accordance with the demands of “negative capability”). Can Keats’s subjects be both the happy lovers of the third stanza, and the “marble men and maidens overwrought” of the last (Urn, 1061)? Apparently so, but it is the urn, the work of art itself, which “teases” out of Keats the thought that: “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’; that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Urn, 1061).

Keats’s attribution of the seemingly tautological dictum to a created object of great aesthetic beauty triumphantly emphasizes his commitment to art as a medium “capable of making all disagreeables evaporate” (Letter, 1019). In proclaiming the identity of “truth” (a quixotic entity that has been sought in vain since thought began) and “beauty” (an undefinable–but irresistibly present–quality that may wash over any receptive person when confronted with a beautiful object, such as the urn itself), the grecian urn exhibits the “negative capability” that had eluded Keats in his work. Perhaps this represents Keats’s realization that no “man of achievement” can ever subscribe fully to the doctrine of “negative capability” (else he/she would be blind to the contradictions of existence, and thus feel no need to resolve them through creative endeavor), but the products of his/her genius may.

This epiphany allowed Keats to create To Autumn, the ode which most completely eschews “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” The poem has been described as “Keats’s supreme triumph in the handling of poetic resources” (Mayhead, 95). To Autumn is (borrowing T.S. Eliot’s description of Henry James’s mind) “so fine that no idea can penetrate it”. It seems to have no agenda, no design upon the reader; its beauty is its only excuse for being. Ultimately, Keats’s perfect portrait of his temperate world in a period of transition yields an insight into the nature of existence more profound than anything in his more overtly philosophical odes. To Autumn is “negative capability” incarnate.

From the first lines: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” (Autumn, 1080) the ode evokes a sense of the beneficence of uncertainty. It is as if the fruit emerges effortlessly out of the autumnal mists. This neatly reflects the approach to truth taken by Keats in his letter on “negative capability.” Paradoxically, there is more to be gained from wandering into the foggy “penetralium of mystery” (letter, 1019) than from attempting to disperse the mists with the harsh light of rational inquiry.

To Autumn is suffused with images of process and transition; yet it is as weighty and solid as the apples which “bend the mossed cottage-trees” (Autumn, 1080). In instances such as “full-grown lambs” (as opposed to sheep), “soft-dying day”, “half-reaped furrow”, and “stubble-plains”, Keats uses words that emphasize an eternal becoming. However, he never refers to the telos of his subjects. This is most unusual; it is in marked contrast to the practice of a poet such as Shelley, who glorified transition as necessary in bringing about the union of the ideal and the real. For Keats, at least in To Autumn, it would appear that process is the only truth of which we can be certain, and also the source of all beauty.

There are no real questions in To Autumn; there is only receptivity to insights gleaned from careful observation of the world. Once, the poet asks: “Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?” This is merely a rhetorical question, designed to remind the reader that the scene that inspired Keats is available to all who have eyes to watch the orchard bear fruit, and skin to feel the “winnowing wind”. Later, he inquires: “Where are the songs of spring?” He feels no need to answer this question, replying: “Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” The importance of this passage cannot be overestimated; it is Keats’s affirmation that autumn, as a time of transition, is as beautiful as spring (almost certainly more beautiful, because our attention is more focused on the process of change itself, than upon the anticipated culmination of the metamorphosis: summer). The twittering of swallows “gathering in the skies” (presumably in order to migrate) has a melancholy charm that no spring song can have: the autumn birds are reminding us not to forget them over the long winter ahead. The “last oozings” from the cider press are by far the sweetest. For Keats, the truths that nature has to teach are all on the surface; there is no need to perform an autopsy (with the intellectual scalpel of the metaphysician).

Keats’s concept of “negative capability” is an extremely rigorous, but useful, standard of aesthetic judgment. It raises the bar of achievement to a point that is beyond the reach of all poets as human beings, but which is accessible to their finest artistic creations. The Ode to a Nightingale shows Keats still uncomfortable with half-knowledge, still immersed in the epistemological maelstrom fostered by Western philosophical discourse. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the poet recognizes that “negative capability” can exist only in great works of art (not their creators); thus he attributes the dictum “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (the terminal point of all vain metaphysical speculation) to the urn itself. To Autumn is John Keats’s grecian urn; a work so intensely beautiful that truth oozes out of it, unbidden, like the rays of the “maturing sun.”

(The language is awfully affected, but, as always, I’m on about the idea that a great work of art, like an encounter with an incredible person, anihilates the problem of epistemology by making us feel, on a visceral level, the reality of “other minds”. “To Autumn” does that for me…)

Good Night friends!


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