Despite his short life, the great Romantic poet John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) endures as one of the most influential creative geniuses humanity has produced. Writing to his brothers, George and Thomas, in a December 1817 letter found in Selected Letters (public library), Keats coins the phrase that has come to be the single most emblematic phrase of his entire surviving correspondence, even though he only makes mention of it once: “Negative Capability” — the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. Triggered by Keats’s disagreement with the English poet and philosopher Coleridge, whose quest for definitive answers over beauty laid the foundations for modern-day reductionism, the concept is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
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.
In the introduction to Selected Letters, Jon Mee writes of the letters themselves as a meta-embodiment of “Negative Capability”:
The provisionality of the correspondence might be taken as a triumphant demonstration of negative capability, recording Keats’s ability to project himself into different roles and live in a state of creative uncertainty, but these letters also seem to express a deep sense of insecurity, which frequently took the form of a desire to escape the fever and the fret of the life around him.
Perhaps Christoph Niemann was right, after all, in asserting that insecurity is essential to creativity.
All of Keats’s surviving letters to his family and friends are available as a free ebook.