Sunday, September 26, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 4.1 (John Keats)

Keats, John
The Selected Letters
Of John Keats


I bought this at Rust Belt Books because, remarkably, yesterday's title, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Keats, which contains within it a selection of Keats' letters. does not contain the one letter that every single person who studies Keats reads. I mean the letter to his brothers dated 21 December 1817 in which he lays out his theory of negative capability. It boggles the mind that an editor at the Modern Library could leave something like that out. It makes me wonder if perhaps the concept did not have the same cache it does now at the time of the publication of that book.

I remember when I first started reading Olson how he talked endlessly about negative capability. He talked about it almost as if he were the first one to have discovered the idea's significance. That fact alone makes me wonder if it wasn't until later, say the fifties or sixties, when a certain kind of ambiguity became fashionable in critical circles, that the idea began to take hold within academia. I'd be curious to know if anyone has ever traced the use of this idea in essays and so forth and to know if there was a spike in interest, at least in the United States, after the Second World War.

If that were the case, I could be more forgiving of the omission.

from The Selected Letters Of Joh Keats

from the letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, Sunday, 21 December 1817

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; 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 every other consideration
.

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