Negative Capability

In his letter to his two brothers, John Keats describes his reaction to seeing Benjamin West’s painting, Death on the Pale Horse. He criticizes the painting for lacking “intensity” and depicting unpleasant scenes without containing any redeeming displays of “beauty & truth.” He then continues on to say that the quality present in excellent artists and poets is something he refers to as “Negative Capability,” which allows a man to be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”  He concludes his letter by stating that “with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration.” It seems that the idea of beauty and the ability of a poet to perceive and convey beauty is important to Keats in determining the quality of an artistic work. He suggests that a work can be beautiful without being reasonable or perfectly understood and criticizes Samuel Coleridge for placing too much emphasis in creating art that is understandable. He also suggests that beauty can be found in works that would otherwise be considered unpleasant, and that the beauty in a work “obliterates all [other] consideration.” It seems like Keats’s quality of negative capability applies as much to the beholder of the art as to the artist. Although the artist is responsible for perceiving and conveying beauty through their work, the audience must also be perceptive enough to apprehend the beauty. With this in mind, it seems like the beauty as Keats understands it is something that is external to both parties while at the same time recognized by each. Perhaps this is due to some aspect of human nature that causes people to be similarly affected by their perceptions of beauty. Keats also mentions truth in his discussion of beauty. It is unclear if he believes that these ideas are interdependent or not. It seems possible that there could be said to be some kind of truth in some beautiful images, but I am unsure whether all beautiful things are true, and conversely, whether all true things are somehow beautiful. I also wonder what exactly is means by his use of the word “true.” As he makes a point to say that beauty is not contingent on rationality, I almost feel that the substituting the word “real” for his word “true” helps me to better understand his meaning. What may be gained through this substitution is an emphasis on things that are somehow intimately relatable to human nature, and the distinction from things that may be said to be factually true. I might then venture to say that the ultimate perception of beauty may involve first perceiving an image of something that could be said to be “real” in the sense that one strongly reacts and relates to it on some emotional level which may often be entirely outside the realm of reason.


One thought on “Negative Capability

  1. I Died For Beauty

    I died for beauty, but was scarce
    Adjusted in the tomb,
    When one who died for truth was lain
    In an adjoining room.

    He questioned softly why I failed?
    “For beauty,” I replied.
    “And I for truth – the two are one;
    We brethren are,” he said.

    And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
    We talked between the rooms,

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