Susan McCaslin, author of “Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga”, revisits the life and works of the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821).
The earliest surviving portrait of John Keats, charcoal drawing by Joseph Severn, 1816: http://englishhistory.net/keats/john-keats-images-pictures/
This summer I have been revisiting the life and works of the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) decades after studying him in graduate school. I have long felt that writers we consider “dead” are actually very much alive, and become more so when we enter the worlds their words create. This has certainly been true for me in the case of the lingering presence of John Keats.
During a trip to the English Lake District this summer, I was reminded that, not only did Keats undertake a walking tour of northern England and Scotland three years before he died of tuberculosis, but that he visited Keswick, the very town where my husband and I were staying. We chose Keswick because it was associated with the poet S. T. Coleridge, but I was soon reminded that Keats too had visited there with his travelling companion Charles Brown in 1818.
Keats had met another significant Lake District poet, William Wordsworth, on several earlier occasions in London in 1817, and was to meet Coleridge in Highgate outside London later in 1819. The younger Romantic adored his predecessor Wordsworth, but coined the phrase “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” in a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse to express his sometimes ambivalent response to the more conventional, middle-aged Wordsworth. However, it is clear that Keats admired Wordsworth to the end of his life.
Keats was certainly quieter and less flamboyant than his fellow second-wave Romantic poets and peers, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. During my graduate studies, I focussed on the later spiritual and philosophical writings of Coleridge, but I also participated in a lively seminar on Keats and stood in awe of his use of Greek myth, his sensual connection to the natural world, and what have been called his “five great odes of 1819.” It was generally agreed among the literary critics that had Keats lived longer, he might have surpassed many of his predecessors as well as his famous peers. Sadly, he was granted only twenty-six years in which to forge poems of enduring beauty and power, among them my favourites, his sonnet “When I Have Fears That I 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 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 can experience directly, but cannot control either in life 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 wisdom-teaching, 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 soul. And the anonymous 14th-century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing describes seeking the unnameable Unity as like entering into a “cloud” where one abandons rationalistic certainty for union.
In a letter to his friend J. H. Reynolds (May 3, 1818) Keats writes of the stage of life when a person enters what he calls “The Chamber of Maiden Thought,” which gradually darkens until “We are in a Mist…We feel the ‘burden of the Mystery.’” For Keats, the act of affirming beauty even in the midst of suffering is a practice that extends from the beginning to the end of his life. He writes Benjamin Bailey in Nov. 1817, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not….” This affirmation reappears at the end of one of his most beloved poems, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which concludes with the famous lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Though the clarity of the urn’s pronouncement may seem abstract when taken out of its context in the poem, and even to contradict Keats’ embrace of uncertainty and unknowing, for me it is an example of another kind of clarity that sometimes emerges within the experience of the cloud.
Keats’ speaks of another aspect of the apophatic Imagination at the end of the same letter to Bailey: “The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” The act of transcending one’s ego to enter the consciousness of a bird requires shifting from a perception of separateness into that of a unity that contains both bird and human. Here the divisions between ourselves and other species become permeable.
Keats was not an otherworldly nature poet. As a progressive, liberal thinker, he was engaged with the social issues of his times, often rejecting conventional religiosity. He was keenly aware of the inequalities between rich and poor, colonialism, and dogmatism in its many forms. For a time, he saw himself in alignment with the ideals of his atheist friend Shelley who critiqued conventional forms of religion. Like Shelley, he turns in the letters and poems to the mysteries of nature, agreeing with Wordsworth about the futility of an obsessive “getting and spending” which “lay[s] waste our powers.” Because he insists on returning to the essential mystery of things, Keats for me is a heroic figure of humility and courage rather than abjection.
We require Keats more than ever at this time because of his posture of humility toward the earth. The ecological writer Thomas Berry coined the term “Ecozoic era” in his The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Club, 1988) to describe the geological era humans could be entering now, where we might (if we awake in time) come to live in greater harmony with other humans and with the eco-cycles of the earth. It is an understatement to say that our “positively capable” industrial technologies developing during Keats’ time, which have enabled us to exploit and ravage the earth, have not served us or the planet well. Yet as we experience the destructive impact of our own cleverness as a species, Keats’ poems still sing about how we yet may open to a more conscious awareness of our relation to the earth.
The Kentucky poet of sustainable farming, Wendell Berry, also addresses our need to lament our collective arrogance and adjust ourselves to the rhythms of the natural world. He writes in a Keatsian mode of “negative capability” when he argues that “we must learn to cooperate in [the earth’s] processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important[ly], we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it.”(from “A Native Hill” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays) Berry’s concepts of “slow growth” and even “no growth” are ways of affirming the life-renewing powers of restraint. Keats is a poet whose body of work continues to speak against the human urge to manipulate, improve, and control the planet.
Keats’ insights about the fluidity of the poetic process are essential not only for the composition of poetry, but for the formation of a more poetic way of life for all: “[I]f it [poetry] comes not as naturally as Leaves to a tree,” he writes in a letter to John Taylor (Feb. 1818), “it had better not come at all.” His sense that poetry should flow naturally, doesn’t mean poets shouldn’t craft their words. It doesn’t mean that creating art is without struggle or difficulty. Nor does “negative capability,” when applied to our relation to the earth, mean we shouldn’t labour to protect and restore the ecosystems of which we are a part. The emphasis is actually on the word “capability,” the power that comes from joining with powers and forces greater than those of our limited selves. If we work with a sense that the doing is ours but not ours, we might have much better outcomes.
The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu writes about the ease of “non-doing” when one with nature’s flow:
The Tao does nothing,
but leaves nothing undone.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (verse 37)
Lau Tzu’s timeless lines are fully in sync with Keats’ negative capability. Only the language of paradox and poetry can fully capture the balance of simply being in the mist of uncertainty, frailty, and temporality. As a retired educator who is still writing poetry, I try to take the young Keats’ advice whenever I can, still learning from one who died my junior in years, but already an elder of the tribe.
– Susan McCaslin, author of Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna, 2014).