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Writing

John Keats’ Theory of Negative Capability in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

The nineteenth-century English poet John Keats introduced the term “negative capability” (following a heated disquisition with English politician Charles Wentworth Dilke) into the literary world’s vernacular as a means to create acceptance in regards to the unknown. Famously, one of the letters of John Keats makes mention of negative capability to his brothers George and Tom Keats, arguing against the pursuit of logic and reason in favor of a sense of beauty and wonder.

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What Is Keats’ Theory of Negative Capability?

The concept of negative capability pertains to the ability to live within the penetralium of mystery or deal with unanswered questions. Not every event—especially in fiction—needs to (or will) have a direct, satisfying explanation. Negative capability embraces this half-knowledge, creating a willful suspension of disbelief in service of the openness and curiosity geared toward a greater, more imaginative story. Exploring the temporary beauty of a passing moment is more important than figuring out why or how that moment exists.

4 Examples of Negative Capability In Literature

Negative capability can exist due to a willful omittance of specific details, or because there is no right answer available for a particular situation. Some examples of negative capability are:

  1. John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” This poem deals with musings on mortality, containing no real solution on how to deal with the anxieties of impending death. This poem carries a darker tone, leading Keats to reject an optimistic viewpoint. The reader lives in this environment with Keats, experiencing the imaginative manifestations of his fear with no real satisfying conclusion, except the realization that he will succumb to the very thing he fears in the end.
  2. John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” This poem posits various questions regarding the figures displayed on an urn, using only the narrator’s imagination to ruminate about what scenes the pottery is depicting. The narrator has a one-sided conversation with the inanimate art, leaving open-ended questions in the wake of his curiosity. Keats portrays a narrator puzzled by the complexities of visual art, but ultimately accepting that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
  3. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This play depicts a tragic love story between two children that results in their suicides and the deaths of many others. The ability to put aside the logical factors of the circumstances in service of the emotional tale is an example of negative capability that Keats believed contributed to Shakespeare’s mastery.
  4. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. While Rowling takes the time to explain a number of things in her universe, there are many other aspects of the world that go without answers, like where magic comes from or what triggers the wizard gene in a Muggle-born baby. Negative capability requires the reader to put their faith in the author, that a complete story can still be told despite the lack of full knowledge regarding every aspect of this environment.
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How to Explore Negative Capability in Your Writing

John Keats believed fellow great poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth could have benefitted from less of an inclination towards truth, and more of a direction toward uncertainty. In his opinion, various subjects could be explored in a more abstract or objective way if authors were not so preoccupied with explaining how things work or uncovering truths.

Here are a couple of tips for exploring negative capability in your writing:

  • Disregard the need to analyze. Letting the reader experience a bit of mystery instead of feeling the need to flesh out your rationale is a way to use negative capability. Allow the audience to formulate their own thoughts and come to their own conclusions, rather than explaining what you think they should be feeling.
  • Practice with new kinds of prompts. Writing stories in an unfamiliar genre or about topics you’re not completely comfortable with can help you get in the headspace of writing with uncertainty. Writing the unknown means you don’t explain things because you can’t, which in turn will help you write with negative capability, and get yourself in the practice of telling a more open story.

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