John Keats by William Hilton

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton, circa 1822

Negative capability is a theory of the poet John Keats describing the capacity for accepting uncertainty and the unresolved.


Keats' theory of "negative capability" was expressed in his letter to his brothers dated Sunday, 21 December 1817. He says [1]

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & 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.

Keats believed that great people (especially poets) have the ability to accept that not everything can be resolved. Keats, as a Romantic, believed that the truths found in the imagination access holy authority. Such authority cannot otherwise be understood, and thus he writes of "uncertainties." This "being in uncertaint[y]" is a place between the mundane, ready reality and the multiple potentials of a more fully understood existence. It relates to his metaphor of the Mansion of Many Apartments.

It could be argued that Keats explored this idea in several of his poems

positive Template:Clarify capability is a state of intentional open-mindedness paralleled in the literary and philosophic stances of other writers. In the 1930s, the American philosopher John Dewey cited Keatsian negative capability as having influenced his own philosophical pragmatism, and said of Keats' letter that it "contains more of the psychology of productive thought than many treatises." [2][3] Nathan Scott, in his book Negative capability; studies in the new literature and the religious situation,[4] notes that negative capability has been compared to Heidegger’s concept of Gelassenheit, “the spirit of disponibilité before What-Is which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery." Walter Jackson Bate, Keats's biographer, explored the approach in detail in his 1968 work Negative Capability: The Intuitive Approach in Keats.

Author Philip Pullman excerpts from Keats's letter and prominently incorporates the concept in his fantasy novel The Subtle Knife.

It is important to note, however, that Keats did not theorise upon "Negative Capability" at great length. In fact, this phrase, like many of his other famous ideas - the Chameleon Poet, the Vale of Soul-making, the Mansion of Many Apartments - appears only once in all his correspondence.[5] The fact that these theories were never formally cemented, but emerged in the flow of single, specific letters, is highly relevant to Keats's own conception of them. However, the general meaning of Negative Capability has been fixed by its subsequent discussion.


  • Jacob D. Wigod, "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness," PMLA, vol. 67, no. 4. (June 1952), pp. 383–90.


  1. Romanticism: an anthology, By Duncan Wu, Duncan Wu Edition: 3, illustrated Published by Blackwell, 2005 p.1351
  2. Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Perigree (2005):33-4.
  3. Kestenbaum, Victor. The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal: John Dewey and the Transcendent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2002): 225.
  4. Scott Negative capability; studies in the new literature and the religious situationYale University Press (New Haven), 1969
  5. Scott, Grant (ed.), Selected Letters of John Keats, Harvard University Press (2002)

External linksEdit

Template:Use dmy dates

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.