On This Day in 1817: Keats and Negative Capability, 21-27 December

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After a hiatus, ‘On This Day’ continues with a post by Ellen Nicholls (University of Sheffield). Ellen is a third year PhD candidate and Wolfson Scholar, studying under the supervision of Dr Madeleine Callaghan. Her thesis explores the interdependency of pleasure and pain in the poetry and letters of John Keats, thinking about how far Keats uses the poem as an experimental space in which to engage with, advance, and depart from a medical understanding of bodily experience. Alongside her studies, she is also working with the Keats-Shelley Association of America as a Communications Fellow, collaborating with and promoting the many bicentenary celebrations of the Romantics through online media.

We return to this series to celebrate an iconic moment from 1817 which will be familiar to many scholars of Romanticism and readers of Keats. Here Ellen explains the significance of this bicentenary and also discusses the short lyric ‘In Drear-nighted December’.

More ‘On This Day’ posts to follow. If you want to contribute to this series, please contact Anna Mercer (mercerannam@gmail.com).

 

‘Drear-Nighted December’ and the Bicentenary of Keats’s Negative Capability Letter

 

This Christmas marks the bicentenary of Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’ letter. Written roughly between 21-27 December 1817, this important anniversary leads many romantic scholars and enthusiasts to reflect on Keats’s considerable achievements. As this time approaches, I am not only reminded of the astonishing creative energies that Keats displays in his letter, but also drawn to Keats’s attentiveness to the season in which he is writing. Critics are often attuned to the role darkness and mist play in Keats’s conception of negative capability.[1] But very little has been said of how ‘Drear-nighted December’, the month and time of day in which Keats was writing to his brothers Tom and George, informs one of his most famous poetic speculations. December 21 1817 was the winter solstice, and the shorter, darker days of winter, alongside the many indoor festivities that accompanied them, were not far from Keats’s mind while he was writing to his brothers in Teignmouth.

The composition history of this significant letter remains somewhat shrouded in the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ (Letters: John Keats I, 193) that it so famously sets forth.[2] The letter survives from a transcript by John Jeffrey; second husband to George’s wife, Georgiana. Hyder Edward Rollins points out Jeffrey’s misdating of the correspondence, a fact that is unsurprising given Keats’s habit of composing letters over fragmented periods of time. But Rollins conjectures that the letter’s main passage on negative capability was ‘very likely’ (Letters: John Keats I, 194) written the night of 26th December, after Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke accompanied Keats to the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime: Harlequin’s Vision, Or, The Feast of the Statue.

It is Keats’s busy social life throughout the festive period that not only interrupts the letter’s composition, but that is also vital in informing its content. Keats wryly comments upon how he has ‘been out too much lately’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192), describing how he: watched one of his favourite actors, Edmund Kean, in Shakespeare’s Richard III; spent ‘two very pleasant evenings with Dilke’ (Letters: John Keats I, 191-192); viewed Benjamin West’s painting Death on the Pale Horse with Charles Jeremiah Wells— an artistic experience that was central in elaborating his thoughts on the ‘close relationship […] [between] Beauty & Truth’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192) ; ‘dined with Haydon’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192); dined also with Horace Smith, Smith’s two brothers, Thomas Hill, John Kingston, and Edward Du Bois; and, of course, attended the Christmas pantomime with Brown and Dilke.

 

‘Death on the Pale Horse’ by Benjamin West (1817)

 

It is the spirit of conviviality, converse, and merriment that accompanied Keats’s busy social calendar between 21 and 27 December that led him to set out his theory of negative capability. Reflecting upon his walk to and from the Christmas pantomime with his two friends, Keats writes:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in 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 (Letters: John Keats I, 193-194).

Keats comically draws attention to the friendly spirit of disagreement, typical of the festive period, which characterised his conversation with Dilke by means of rejecting the term ‘dispute’ in favour of ‘disquisition’. The rigorous discussion and questioning that the verb ‘disquisition’ implies becomes important for understanding ‘what quality’ Keats is attempting to spell out. Keats writes in response to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, published the same year that this letter was composed, and in which Coleridge suggests that the poet should aim to reconcile ‘opposite or discordant qualities’ through a synthetic imagination.[3] Entering into dialogue with Coleridge, Keats suggests that reaching after reconciliations and conclusions can lead to the ‘verisimilar’, or that which appears true, but is ultimately fallacious. Instead, negative capability proposes an ability to remain at ease with the ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’ of contradiction and disagreement, advancing the idea that the poet should have a disquisitional mind that is content with ‘half knowledge’ and in which meaning is neither fixed nor debate shut down. It is with such a dialogic openness of mind that Keats conceives of negative capability. With a characteristically contradictory turn of phrase, Keats highlights how holding ‘several things’ in equipoise within his imagination paradoxically leads his ideas to ‘dovetail’, uniting together to form his important poetic concept. Creativity, for Keats, is not inhibited but enabled by the inherent equivocality of tensions so much so that the ambiguities and indeterminacies of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ would become one of the defining features of Keats’s poetic style.

Considering the season in which Keats sat down to write this letter 200 years ago, brings into relief the receptivity of his creative imagination. A mind continually responsive to and informed by his surroundings, encounters, and conversations with friends, the negative capability letter demonstrates the inextricability between Keats’s life, letters, and poetry. It was on another day in December 1817 that Keats wrote and poetically reflected upon the season in the short lyric, ‘In Drear-nighted December’. This winter poem does not contain depictions of friendly converse and companionship that we see in Keats’s negative capability letter, instead presenting harsh and ‘sleety’ (6) images of dismal ‘frozen thawings’ (7). But Keats’s sense that nature might find contentment with its winter condition, with the darkness and dreariness of a season in which life clings on so tentatively, resonates with his thoughts on ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. As John Barnard writes: ‘The poem reflects Keats’s ideas on “Negative Capability” and “intensity”, which he outlined in his important letter to Tom and George on 21-7 December 1817’.[4] The ‘crystal fretting’ (14) of Keats’s poem is centred on how we might share in nature’s contentment with ‘drear-nighted’ (1) uncertainty without writhing (20) at the ‘passed joy’ (20) of summer’s ‘budding’ (8) stability:

 

I

In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy tree,

Thy branches ne’er remember

Their green felicity:

The north cannot undo them,

With a sleety whistle through them;

Nor frozen thawings glue them

From budding at the prime.

 

II

In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy brook,

Thy bubblings ne’er remember

Apollo’s summer look;

But with a sweet forgetting,

They stay their crystal fretting,

Never, never petting

About the frozen time.

 

III

Ah! would ’t were so with many

A gentle girl and boy!

But were there ever any

Writhed not of passèd joy?

The feel of not to feel it,

When there is none to heal it,

Nor numbèd sense to steal it,

Was never said in rhyme.[5]

 

Keats’s repeated use of the negations ‘Ne’er’ (3), ‘nor’ (7), ‘never’ (15), ‘not’ (20), sets forth the issue under interrogation: namely, how to articulate a feeling as ambiguous as absence and loss. The poem paradoxically draws attention to the sensation of senselessness, or ‘the feel of not to feel it’ (21), presenting the loss of joy not as a ‘numbèd sense’ (23) in which all feeling is annihilated, but an absent presence or painful void that causes one to writhe (20). The poem proposes an inability for ‘rhyme’ (24) or poetic language to contain such an experience, leading Michael O’Neill to argue that the poem is, ‘called into being by the “feel” it is said never to have found words for, “rhyme” stands apart from “feel” by virtue of its failure to rhyme with any lines in the stanza (it rhymes with the final lines of stanzas 1 and 2)’.[6] Poetic language ostensibly fails to meet the demands of negative capability by being unable to capture the uncertain, mysterious, and doubtful sensation of absence. And yet it is at the point where rhyme is said to fail that the potentiality of such uncertainty is evident. The word ‘rhyme’ may not harmonise with any other line ending in the third stanza, but it shares an important formal and semantic relation to the end words of the previous two stanzas: ‘prime’ (8) and ‘time’ (16). The final words of each stanza are aurally incongruous to the other rhyme sounds in each contained section, isolated within the bleak landscape that they both describe and reflect. But they also serve to link each of the stanzas together as a whole by drawing the eye and ear back to the only words that they share a formal relation with in the other stanzas. By linking these three words together through rhyme, the poem’s outlook of winter desolation is both undermined and belied by the suggestion that ‘drear-nighted December’ (1) is the ‘prime’ (8) ‘time’ (16) for engendering thought and sensation within poetic language. That which is dark, obscure, and uncertain becomes a site of frustration and ‘fretting’ (14) that resists the limitations of language, even as it is presented as a location of ‘budding’ (8) potentiality.

Keats may be a poet who is most frequently associated with autumn, but the importance of winter for his poetic thought should not be underestimated. December reminds us of the remarkable achievement of Keats’s letters as the month that both brought into being and embodies his thoughts on negative capability.

– Ellen Nicholls

 

[1] See Keats’s 3rd May 1818 letter to Reynolds in which Keats creates a simile for life as ‘a large Mansion of Many Apartments’ (Letters: John Keats I, 280-281). In his analysis of the letter, Alexander Patterson suggests that darkness and mist do not inhibit, but facilitate thought and imagination. Alexander Patterson, ‘A Greater Luxury’: Keats’s Depictions of Mistiness and Reading, Romanticism, 18 (2012), pp. 260-269 (p. 260).

[2] The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). All subsequent references to the letters will be taken from this edition.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Biographia Literaria” (1817) in The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 155-482 (p. 319).

[4] See footnotes to ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[5] John Keats, ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[6] Michael O’Neill, “The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale”: Keats (I)’ in Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 180-209 (p. 182).