Negative Capability Defined: Walking in Mysteries—and the Shoes of Others—with Keats, Shakespeare, Whitman—and Barack Obama!

Prometheus Unbound

In a letter dated 22 December, 1817, the poet John Keats coined the term “negative capability” and defined it this way:

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.

Keats thought, in other words, that one of the things that made Shakespeare so powerful was his ability to sublimate his own individual assumptions and persona—that is, make himself a negative—and thereby sympathetically enter into “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”—presumably both metaphysical ones AND those of his psychologically bottomless and complex characters (like Hamlet)—without running to any premature and oversimplifying “rational” closures upon any of them.


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