John Keats concept of Negative Capability

The English poet John Keats first discussed the idea of negative capability in a letter he wrote in 1817. It suggests a specific trait of artistic and creative thinking—the capacity to accept ambiguity, contradiction, and uncertainty without looking for easy or conclusive solutions. The ability to remain in a condition of doubt and ambiguity without drawing firm conclusions or applying previous conceptions to a situation or experience is what Keats called “negative capability.”

Keats’s use of the words “Negative” and “Capability”

The term “Negative Capability” may at first appear contradictory since it mixes the word “negative,” which often refers to something deficient or absent, with the word “capability,” which suggests a capacity or ability to perform something. Nevertheless, “Negative Capability” does not have an adverse or negative connotation when viewed in the context of Keats’s philosophy. Rather, it conveys a spirit of accessibility, receptivity, and readiness to accept the unknowable, the ambiguous, and the enigmatic.

Keats’ use of the word “negative” does not suggest a defect or limitation, but rather a rejection of preset or fixed judgments. It denotes renouncing the desire to impose rigid frameworks, categorical explanations, or final solutions upon the intricacies of life and the human experience. It implies the capacity to refrain from making snap decisions and to embrace ambiguity without making hasty attempts to explain away or reconcile paradoxes.

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The word “capability” on the other hand stresses the positive element of the idea, implying a capacity or potential to approach life’s unpredictability and mysteries in a unique and receptive way. It refers to the ability to view and experience the world with an open, responsive attitude that is free from preconceived assumptions or rigid ideologies.

Keats’s concept of Negative Capability:

In a letter to his brother and friend George, Keats expressly explains his idea behind negative capability. According to him, it is the capacity to “be in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” He stresses the value of accepting uncertainty and restraining the impulse to look for concrete explanations or to force reason upon the intricacies of life.

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“…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.”

According to Keats, artists need to be in this state of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” in order to fully engage with the complexities and contradictions of life, investigate into the depths of the human experience, and catch the nuances and subtleties of the world in their works of art. Negative Capability is intimately associated with the concepts of openness, receptivity, and a readiness to accept the unknowable and the unexplainable.

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Negative Capability is in opposition to “the Poetical Character,” which Keats defined as the propensity to seek certainty, impose reason and order on the universe, and jump to conclusions or explanations. He thought that excellent art, including poetry, should be able to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, and that the artist should be able to handle the stress of keeping opposing thoughts or feelings in one’s mind without trying to resolve them at once.

Examples of negative capability

In his poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats examines the concepts of mortality, ephemerality, and the influence of art. He listens to the nightingale’s song, which makes him feel both beautiful and sorrowful. Keats is drawn to the bird’s singing, but he makes no attempt to completely comprehend or articulate its significance. Instead, he immerses himself in the moment and accepts the ambiguity and mystery of the nightingale’s singing, allowing it to cause difficult feelings and experiences without trying to make sense of them.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a well-known poem in which Keats contemplates the scenes painted on an old Greek urn while ruminating on the nature of beauty, art, and eternity. He recognizes the images of the urn’s ageless beauty, but he also recognizes how difficult it is for art to fully express the complexity of human existence. He accepts the ambiguities and riddles that the artwork presents rather than trying to fully comprehend or resolve the conflicts he finds on the urn.

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In these instances, Keats exhibits his capacity to discuss difficult and enigmatic issues without attempting to impose clear-cut conclusions or solutions. He accepts ambiguity, mystery, and the incomprehensible, allowing the complexities and inconsistencies of human experience to arouse feelings, sensations, and inquiries without having to reach predetermined conclusions. This perfectly captures Keats’ concept of Negative Capability as expressed in his poetry.


In summary, Keats’ concept of negative capability highlights the value of artistic and creative freedom, the capacity for uncertainty, and the understanding that ambiguity, mystery, and doubt are inherently a part of the human experience. It challenges artists to avoid the temptation to categorize or simplify complicated experiences and to truly connect with life’s complex, contradictory, and constantly-evolving character.

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