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John Keats

Michael DeNobile analyzes British Romantic John Keats's personal letters and poetry to explore his unique philosophies on poetry and culminates with a close reading of "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats. This paper was originally written by DeNobile in December 2009 as a final paper for a graduate course at Hunter College on British Romantic poetry.

Table of Contents


1. Using Keats's Letters as a Starting Point

2. Reading Keats's Letters to Discover His Process Toward Negative Capability

2a. Native gift and accumulated experience

2b. Slow development, maturity, rooted strength, leisure for growth

2c. Voyage of conception

2d. Stylistic copying and mimicry

2e. Understanding the limitations of tradition

2f. Developing craft in illustration, imagery, and detail

2g. Imaginative identity in relation to sensation, memory, and imagination

2h. Understanding and developing poetical character

2i. Approaching Negative Capability

3. A Close Reading of "Ode to a Nightingale" in light of Negative Capability


Works Cited


Michael DeNobile

Prof. A. Vardy

English 741

16 December 2009

“—I mean Negative Capability”:

Keats’s Quest for the Poetic Ideal


I have left

My strong identity, my real self,

Somewhere between the throne, and where I sit

Here on the spot of earth.

—Saturn, from Hyperion

In John Gibson Lockhart’s review “The Cockney School of Poetry No. IV” (1818) from the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 3, John Keats was a stupid, naïve, pigheaded dreamer with a bad taste in poetry and politics, an abusive passion for writing, and a talent that was much ado about nothing.  Placing Keats in the Cockney School, Lockhart argued Keats’s work instilled a “lower-middle-class vulgarity, lasciviousness, radicalism, and aesthetic lack of taste” (Wu 1008), criticizing him for things such as his rhyming style and use of working-class diction.  If one were to summarize the career of Keats through Lockhart-colored glasses, one would be blinded to the truth.  The genius of John Keats lies in his constant endeavor for perfection of his poetic craft: particularly his development and demonstration of Negative Capability (to elucidate the role of the poet).  In earlier works, we see how he developed this poetic ideal with his “Ode to a Nightingale” as the culmination and (the closest) perfected demonstration of Negative Capability.

Using Keats’s letters (specifically his letters to his brothers on Negative Capability), Clarke on accumulated experience, Bailey on imagination, Reynolds on slow development, the voyage of conception and the Mansion of Many Apartments, Woodhouse on poetic Character, and George and Georgina Keats on the vale of soul-making and the intellect) to define special Keatsian cognitive terms, this analysis will establish Keats’s foundation for his development of Negative Capability. As these terms are defined, their relationship to each other will be speculated as part of a fluid set of stages—Keats’s personally suggestive “how-to” on becoming an ideal poet.  This all will demonstrate the true genius of Keats, why he has made a lasting impression on the poetic world, and explain why he was not a stupid, naïve, pigheaded dreamer.

1. Using Keats's Letters as a Starting Point

Art enthusiasts, when wanting to study a painter’s style, usually start with their works—to understand van Gough, one observes “Starry Night” or his “Café Terrace at Night.” Likewise, when studying a poet, or any writer for that matter, in order to understand their literary style and thematic pursuits, one usually begins with the works themselves.  Like diamonds in the rough, the mystery of Keats and the wisdom of his masterpieces are hidden in the pages of his personal letters to his friends and family, spelt out like a textbook. As Edwards noted, “We find in [Keats’s letters] a fascinating documentation of the development of one of the great minds of his age—and one of the most sophisticated theorists on art and literature” (3), and even more so, Young acknowledged that, through his letters, it was “possible to trace the evolution of Keats’s poetic thought and technique as he matured and refined his ideas and beliefs regarding literature” (273).

Keats was a diamond in the rough—an ore of a poet, if you will.  His inherent genius, combined with his passion and love of life, is only understood first in his letters before we even approach his works.  While he “occasionally yearned for solitude,” Scott explained: how the

stereotype of the isolated romantic poet—confined to some lonely hut in the wilds, generating poems in a visionary frenzy with ‘flashing eyes’ and ‘floating hair’—could hardly be less appropriate for Keats.  He is genial and gregarious, inseparable from the tight network of his friends.  (558)

In addition to his sociability, we find in his letters a “larger humanitarian mission” (Scott 588) to teach the world about the “proximity of the mundane and the profound,” how there is a “seamless integration of everyday life with the life of the mind” (Scott 556).

Knowing Keats’s life story, we can understand his quest to understand and find the answers to some of man’s hard-asked questions, questions  he outlines in his letters.  “Keats saw a vital connection between poetry and the ‘real world,’” stated Scott, “the world of suffering and misfortune that beset those closest to him” (557).  In addition, we are “also invited [through his letters] to see each work not merely as a discreet self-contained unity, but part of his broader approach to such issues as death and loss, love and deception, stasis and change” (Edwards 7), and as further noted by Edwards:

Despite his seemingly otherworldly subject matter there is little that is aloof about his work.  Empathy and intense involvement are writ large in his poems—and even more apparent in the compassion which pervades his friendships and his letters.  (13)

It is in his letters that we are introduced to the many hats that Keats wore: the man, the poet, the philosopher, the teacher, and the lover.  From the way he outlines his philosophies, to his interactions with his friends, to his overwhelming passion for life and art, we discover the Keats he was and the Keats he hoped to become.

Most critics should understand the justification used to study Keats’s letters before turning to his work.  While correspondences are usually seen as footnotes to an artist’s career, for Keats they are focal points.  The reason behind closely reading his letters, however, is in the

remarkable fact of the letters is that his most famous ideas—Negative Capability, the Chameleon Poet, the Vale of Soul-making, the Mansion of Many Apartments—appear only once. They are neither repeated to other correspondents nor formalized in published essays, but remain provisional, bound within the specific human context of a letter.  (Scott 555–556)

Before we visit his verse, we must first understand his cognitive jargon, his ideals for a poet, and his path toward perfecting the craft of poetic art.  We must start with the philosopher-man-teacher before observing the poet before his nightingale.

2. Reading Keats's Letters to Discover His Process Toward Negative Capability

At the bicentennial celebration of Keats’s birthday in 1995, Walter Evert provided this witness account:

It was through Keats…that I learned how to experience poetry, not merely through emotional identification and intellectual analysis but as a miracle of rare device, a structure of associative elements in which the building blocks of rational order were reassembled to create something the mind could grasp and the tongue describe but which never existed before, and whose existence changed all the world around….  And through my fortuitous experience of Keats I can say that for me, the primary experience of poetry is prior to all the agendas that poetry may touch upon or lend itself to.  (Ryan & Sharp 8)

As we will discover later, as Keats learnt style and theme from his poetic forefathers, Keats teaches us (in a more perfected way) the art and craft of poetry.  If we were studying the relationship of man to the divine, for example, Keats is to Augustine as Shakespeare is to Plato.

Borrowing partially from Bate’s article “Negative Capability,” I will attempt to outline Keats’s path toward the Negative Capability ideal as follows:  a) Native gift and accumulated experience, b) “Slow development, maturity, rooted strength, leisure for growth” (19), c) “Voyage of conception” (19), d) Stylistic copying and mimicry, e) Understanding the limitations of tradition, f) Developing craft in illustration, imagery, and detail, g) Imaginative identity in relation to sensation, memory, and imagination, h) Understanding and developing poetical character, and finally i) Approaching Negative Capability.

2a. Native gift and accumulated experience

The first step in approaching Negative Capability is native gift and accumulated experience.  One must possess some level of poetic talent (in order to be a poet capable of Negative Capability) and then accumulate experience through the craft of poetry and  the experience of life itself.  In his October 9, 1816 letter to Clarke, written upon his completion of medical school and entrance into London literary life, we find Keats calling the simple act of meeting Leigh Hunt a “pleasure” and “an Era in [his] existence” (Cox 9).  Making reference to his “Epistle to George Mathew” (Cox 10–11), we know that Keats already possesses some level of poetic talent:

Of courteous knights-errant, and high-mettled steeds;

Of forests enchanted, and marvelous streams;—

Of bridges, and castles, and desperate deeds;

And all the bright fictions of fanciful dreams:—


While a bit poetically rudimentary, the necessity of poetry exists:  there is an imaginative awareness of experience (“O thou who delightest in fanciful song,/And tallest strange tales of the elf and the fay”), and while it was not necessary, there is meter and rhyme.  The detail is extraordinary, but truthfully a bit much (this will be discussed later).  Nonetheless, as an example, Keats possessed the native gift of poetry and delighted in the opportunity of accumulated experience of writing poetry or simply being “acquainted with Men who in their admiration of Poetry [did] not jumble together Shakespeare and Darwin” (Cox 9).  Keats believed that “a poem…emerges from the pains and pleasures of life, but these do not come to us frankly professing their value as sensations; the poem refuses to associate the value of what is made of the experience with its utility of the experiencer” (Bromwich 184).  While harsh critics existed in Keats’s time, early on in his career and later with Lockhart, Woodhouse believed the contrary, writing to his cousin Mary Frogley in 1818, “In all places, and at all times, and before all persons, I would express and as far as I am able, support my high opinion of his poetical merits—such a genius, I verily believe, has not appeared since Shakespeare and Milton” (275).  Keats was a force to be reckoned with, and he was just getting started.


2b. Slow development, maturity, rooted strength, leisure for growth

Minister and author Eric Butterworth once said, “Don’t go through life, grow through life.” This implies that approaching life must be slow in development, attaining maturity in that slowness, rooted in strength (just like plants grow in strength due to their root system), and giving time for leisure to further aide in development. For this reason, slow development, maturity, rooted strength, and leisure for growth are all lumped together as one step because they spiral over each other.  As noted by Bate in his criticism “Negative Capability”:

First [for Keats], the problem of form or style in art enters more specifically.  Second, the ideal toward which he is groping is contrasted more strongly with the egoistic assertion of one’s own identity.  Third, the door is further opened to the perception—which he was to develop within the next few months—of the sympathetic potentialities of the imagination.  (13)

These “problems” he needed to work out in his craft indeed needed a “few months,” if not years, in order to be realized and understood.  The mere addressing of these problems also denotes a maturity in Keats’s craft.  Moreover, “as a reader [Keats] loved poetry which was ‘Full’ of meaning, ‘rich’ in thought and capable of acting as a ‘starting post’ for the reader’s own musings” (Edwards 8), which meant time, patients, maturity, and the fact that he “loved” reading the poetry, one could argue the power of leisure.  Indolence, for Keats, was “a characteristic of the best poets, alternating moods of activity and indolence being, in fact, the rhythm of the mind necessary for” the development of poetic craft (Muir 304).


In many of his letters, he takes pleasure in writing long, epic correspondence (which undoubtedly took long stretches of time to compose), paying attention to minute detail.  “This cleft,” he wrote to Reynolds on April 17–18, 1817, “is filled with trees & bushes in the narrow part; and as it widens becomes bare, if it were not for primroses on one side, which spread to the very verge of the Sea, and some fishermen’s huts on the other, perched midway in the Ballustrades of beautiful green Hedges along their steps down to the sands.—But the sea, Jack, the sea—the little waterfall—then the white cliff—then St Catherine’s Hill—‘the sheep in the meadows, the cows in the corn’” (Cox 77).  In the writing of a letter, he is forcing himself to slow down over the “trees & bushes” and where the cleft “widens [and] becomes bare,” over the “primroses” to “the very verge of the Sea,” down the “little waterfall” and “white cliff” then up “St Catherine’s Hill.” Paying attention to detail is a sign of poetic maturity, and this example shows how he’s using leisure to support his poetic growth.

I will leave a final thought on rooted strength. For Keats, “ambiguity and ambivalence are sources of strength not weakness” (Edwards 9), and furthermore, “the excellence of art lay in its intensity, but that…could be a kind of sensual intensity, a warm vagueness which suggested rather than explained, an almost subliminal technique which provided so much of his poetic power” (Sullivan 9).  The rooted strength of poetry, Keats felt, was in the intensity of emotion and detail, but leaving that emotion and detail to be determined by the reader through “ambiguity and ambivalence” that was “suggested rather than explained.” As he stated in his letter to George and Georgiana Keats from February to May 1819, “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party” (362).

2c. Voyage of conception

As stated earlier, Keats sought a “larger humanitarian mission.” He understood suffering very well and hoped that poetry could aide in the understanding and endurance of suffering.  In his February 19, 1818, letter to Reynolds, Keats wrote,

I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life….  When Man has arrived at a certain ripeness in intellect any one grand and spiritual passage serves him as a starting post towards all “the two-and thirty Pallaces [sic].” How happy is such a voyage of conception! what delicious diligent Indolence!  A doze upon a Sofa does not hinder it, and a napp [sic] upon Clover engenders ethereal finger-pointings [sic]—the prattle of a child gives it wings, and the converse of middle-age a strength to beat them—a strain of musick [sic] conducts to ‘an odd angle of the Isle’ and when the leaves whisper it puts a ‘girdle round the earth.’ (Cox 126)

Extending the idea of leisure for growth through Indolence, he adds how a certain level of intellect opens passages for happiness. As Magill notes, “Following the lead of his contemporary William Wordsworth, though with a completely original emphasis, Keats’s territory for development and conquest became the interior world of mental landscape and its imaginings,” then goes on to say, “Keats initially sought to transcend reality, rather than to transform it, with the power of the imagination to dream” (1773). Life throws some nasty curveballs, but through the employment of the intellect combined with indolence, “a Man might pass a very pleasant life.” The voyage of conception was also a way for Keats to attain accumulated experience, even if that was simply resting “upon a Sofa,” napping “upon Clover,” conversing with those “of middle-age,” listening to “the prattle of a child,” “a strain of musick,” or “the leaves whisper,” all of these so-called mundane events could all be accumulated into experience to support the growth of the poetic art.

2d. Stylistic copying and mimicry

While Keats was stylistically copying and mimicking many different kinds of poets from the start of his literary career, this is an appropriate place for its explanation in the development toward Negative Capability.  As Woodhouse explained to his cousin, “[Keats’s] imitation of our older writers, and especially of our older dramatists, to which we cannot help flattering ourselves that we have somewhat contributed, has brought on, as it were, a second spring in our poetry;—and few of its blossoms are either more profuse of sweetness or richer in promise, that this which is now before us” (276).  He followed Wordsworth “by internalizing the quest toward finding a world that answered the poet’s desires, and he hoped to follow Shakespeare by making that world more than a sublime projection of his own ego” (Bloom “John Keats” 5), and moreover, he “followed the Shakespearean model of impersonality in art; that is, the surrendering of self to the fullest development of character and object, and it is this impersonality, coupled with intensity, that makes his poetry readily accessible to a wide range of modern readers” (Magill 1770).


The necessity of tradition for Keats went beyond the fact that Spencer, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth were simply good poets.  He had great purpose in employing access to these poetic giants. Magill asserts:

Keats knew that he needed deeper knowledge to surpass Wordsworth, but there was not much he could do about it.  Though it was an attractive imagining, no god was likely to pour knowledge into the wide hollows of his brain. “I am…young writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness,” he wrote…, “without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion.”  (1776)

Simply put, Keats knew that to develop his craft he needed accumulated experience.  Being young, he lacked  experience and education. The beauty of literature is that one could experience others’ experiences vicariously through their work.  He also understood, with humility, that he could not possibly know it all but there were others who could direct him.  Levinson explained, “He was not…permitted possession of the social grammar inscribed in that aesthetic array, and this was just what Keats was after” (551), and that’s what he sought out to do. De Reyes further affirmed:  “It was thus to the two great masters of Life and Nature—Shakespeare and Wordsworth—that the young poet turned. He went to them—not for inspiration—for that was already his—but rather for direction of his intellect” (282).

It is important to note, however, that Keats was not seeking a plagiaristic copy of the poetic greats, but a stylistic copy and mimicry that he could transcend and make his own.  “He dignified” Mathew’s poems and transcended “anything Mathew wrote,” and had brought “Hunt more to life,” demonstrating “nothing of the routine mechanism of a copy” (Bate “Negative Capability” 24).  Keats’s poetry “opens itself to the Tradition, defining itself as a theater wherein such contests may be eternally and inconclusively staged” (Levinson 554), but went well beyond the tradition, because “with his new-found technical poise (the assured control of Miltonic blank verse, the stillness he created with the Spenserian stanza and even his sudden expert use of the Augustan heroic couplet, in Hyperion, The Eve and Lamia respectively) he seemed to be more open to different styles but at the same time more confident that he could make these various styles his own” (Edwards 38).  For example, in one of his early sonnets, “To one who has been long in city pent,” we see Keats immersed in and learning from tradition.  The poem begins:  “To one who has been long in city pent,” making reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Coleridge’s “To the Nightingale” (Cox 54).

2e. Understanding the limitations of tradition

While tradition is important to draw on, it is very important to note that “somewhere in the heart of each new poet there is hidden the dark wish that the libraries be burned in some new Alexandrian conflagration, that the imagination might be liberated from the greatness and oppressive power of its own dead champions” (Bloom “John Keats” 1).  De Man further asserts how being a young poet in the shadow of poetic giants “measures his own inadequacy and dwarfs the present” (538), and Magill further noted:


Keats struggled…with the existential issues of the artist’s life—developing the talent and maintaining the heart to live up to immense ambitions.  It is to be doubted whether poets will ever be able to look to Shakespeare or to Milton as models without living in distress that deepens with every passing work.  (1773)

Keats needed to rely on the past without letting it destroy his future, what little of it he had.  If twenty-first century music artists, for example, measured their success in comparison to twentieth century artists as Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Diana Ross, they would neither be able to live up to nor surpass these standards. The twenty-first century musician can, however, borrow the music styles of their forbearers and make them their own in order to better their own musical styles and that is what Keats set out to do.

2f. Developing craft in illustration, imagery, and detail

As stated earlier in relation to slowing down and maturing in poetic craft, Keats started paying attention to detail.  At the beginning, when learning a new skill, Keats employed detail and imagery way too much, and his closest friends were the first to admit it. George Mathew (50–54) and Leigh Hunt on two separate occasions described Keats’s imagery as “ill management of a good thing” (Hunt “Leigh Hunt displays Keats’s’ ‘calm power’: 1820” 171) and “super-abundance” (Hunt “Leigh Hunt announces a new school of poetry: 1817” 58).  Arnold noted Keats’s redundancy to detail on four separate occasions (Arnold “Arnold on Keats: 1848, 1849, 1852, 1853” 325–327).  The Monthly Review called it “superabundance” (162); Dallas said it was “excessive,” “extravagance,” “too rich,” and with “no proportion” (357).  Young noted, which may explain such harsh criticism on his detail, “His fervent tone and sensual imagery appeared shockingly effusive to early nineteenth-century critics schooled in the more formal neoclassical poetics of the eighteenth century” (273).

Some critics, however, were not willing to condemn Keats on detail so quickly. Clarke declared, “The only fault in his poetry I could discover was a redundancy of imagery,—the exuberance, by-the-by, being a quality of the greatest promise, seeing that it is the constant accompaniment of a young and teeming genius” (406). Woodhouse “would at once admit” Keats’s “great faults,” but the faults “are more than counterbalanced by his beauties….  His faults will wear away—his fire will be chastened—and then eyes will do homage to his brilliancy” (275).  Jeffrey described at length:

They [Endymion and Lamia…and Other Poems] are full of extravagance and irregularity, rash attempts at originality, interminable wanderings, and excessive obscurity.  They manifestly require, therefore, all the indulgence that can be claimed for a first attempt:—but we think it no less plain that they deserve it; for they are flushed all over with the rich lights of fancy, and so coloured and bestrewn with the flowers of poetry, that even while perplexed and bewildered in their labyrinths, it is impossible to resist the intoxication of their sweetness, or to shut our hearts to the enchantments they so lavishly present.  (202–203)

While each critic acknowledges that excess in illustration is a pitfall of poetry, they cannot help but admire the “intoxication” and “enchantments” of Keats’s authorship.

Keats provides a defense to his use of detail in his February 27, 1818, letter to John Taylor:

1st. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance—2nd. It touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the sun come natural to him—shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight—but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—and this leads me to another axiom.  That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.  However it may be with me I cannot help looking into new countries with ‘O for a Muse of fire to ascend!’ (Cox 128)

For Keats, imagery should be but a “fine excess,” just enough to overwhelm the reader in “his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance”—a memory once lived by the reader.  More importantly, imagery should come naturally in poetry, ornamenting a poem “as the Leaves to a tree,” otherwise “it had better not come at all”—the tree is better off bare.  His redundancy to detail might not have been an error at all, but his slow development and maturity, refining itself “for a Muse of fire to ascend.” Symons notes, almost humorously, “Perhaps no poet has ever packed so much poetic detail into so small a space, or been so satisfied with having done so” (281).  Whatever it may have been, Keats did something right.  Caine observed, “His earliest works sparkled with the many-coloured brightness of a prism; his latest works began to glow with the steady presence of a purer light” (279), and Smith asserted:

[Endymion] is displeasing to a pure taste, from its very flush of colour and excess of sweetness.  All form and outline are lost in the exuberance of ornament.  In his latter poems, Hyperion especially, he had learned to husband his strength, and had acquired that last gift of the artists, to know where to stop.  There is no excess, nothing extraneous, everything is clear and well-defined, as the naked limbs of an Apollo.  (366)

Keats perfected his craft through an in-depth exercise in the use and understanding of detail and imagery. While at the beginning “all form and outline [were] lost in the exuberance of ornament,” he later harnessed “that last gift of the artists.” He understood that the foundational talent a poet needed was hidden in the power of illustration, naturally flowing from the poet.  Therefore, in the beginning, he used it in much excess, consulted his friends during revisions (Cox 128), and trained himself “to know where to stop.”

2g. Imaginative identity in relation to sensation, memory, and imagination

In late 1817, early 1818, Keats attended William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets; this had a lasting impression on him (Gittings 197). In one of his lectures, Hazlitt discussed the relationship of sensation, memory, and the imagination, and used the anecdote of a boy that burned himself to explain their relationship. If a boy were to burn himself on a stove, the sensation of the burn teaches that it is painful to touch a stove. The memory of the sensation teaches the boy never to touch the stove again, because if he will, he will burn himself. The boy’s imagination stores the memory of the burn, allowing him to relive the sensation to ensure that the event will never be repeated (Bate “Negative Capability” 24).

The entire process interested Keats however the last part about the imagination was of great importance. Understanding sensation and memory, and their relationship to the imagination, he sought to understand truth and accumulated experience:

The superiority of the future over the past expresses, in fact, a rejection of the experience of actuality.  Memory, being founded on actual sensations, is for Keats the enemy of poetic language, which thrives instead on dreams of pure potentiality.  (De Man 543)

Because actuality tended to prevent future experience, even negative experience (for example, the re-burning of the boy), Keats felt accumulated experience, like tradition, had their limitations because it led to memory; thus, the poet must develop an imaginative identity to add accumulative experience in “dreams of pure potentiality.”

Keats further developed his notions of the imagination in his November, 22, 1817, letter to Benjamin Bailey.  Keats wrote:

I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love; they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.  (Cox 102)

Actuality is not necessarily truth (“What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not”).  What is true lies in Beauty, which exists in “all our Passions as of Love.” Keats needed to find a way to access truth through an imaginative identity.

The problem was that developing an imaginative identity requires, as already described, denying memory. To deny memory requires the denial of one’s own personal identity:

In our life of uncertainties, where no one system or formula can explain everything—where even a word is at best, in Bacon’s phrase, a ‘wager of thought’—what is needed is an imaginative openness of mind and heightened receptivity to reality in its full and diverse concreteness.  This, however, involves negating one’s own ego.  (Bate “Negative Capability” 18)

Understanding the difference between personal and imaginative identity, Keats sought to negate his own ego, just like Shakespeare did (Bloom “John Keats” 5).  Keats, having a native gift and pushing himself to accumulate experience, understood the importance of slow development and maturity that was rooted in strength, and how to use leisure for growth. From there, he established the voyage of conception, relying on tradition through stylistic copying and mimicry while understanding the limitations of that tradition. Furthermore, he developed his craft in illustration, imagery, and detail, attending the lectures with Hazlitt where he learned of imaginative identity and the importance of negating one’s ego. This is where Keats began to understand his self-designated Negative Capability. However, in order to understand that a poet needs to negate his ego, he first needed to define the character of a poet.

2h. Understanding and developing poetical character

During the years approaching the composing of his odes, Keats kept on trying to find the right way of expressing the true character of a poet.  “In the odes,” as Fraistat noted, “Keats is to isolate and examine in closer detail the questions raised in the narratives [earlier poems] about the nature of desire, enchantment, and the imagination—all centering around the question of the poet’s proper relationship to poetry and to his world” (598).

In his October 27, 1818, letter to Richard Woodhouse, Keats describes at length poetical character:

As to the poetical Character itself…it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.  It has much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.  What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] poet.  …A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity—he is continually in for—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.  (Cox 295)

Step one, for Keats, was to deny personal identity.  The poet must separate himself “in gusto” for his craft for better or for worse (“foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated”).  The poet must be ever changing (“the camelion poet”) amongst the “unchangeable” (i.e. “The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women”).  He does not mean they are unchangeable in the sense they do not evolve character, for he notes that they “are creatures of impulse,” but that they are unchangeable in having identity. The “poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity”—and that is why the poet must be ever changing.  In addition, being in or a part of the observed object was more important to Keats than the existence of the poet in the creation of the craft.  In his November 3, 1817, letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats wrote, “The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel.” The poet “takes part in [a Sparrow’s] existence;” recreating his imaginative identity to further the development of his art.

On this subject, Scott further notes, “Such protean versatility allows Keats to explore a remarkable range of human character and emotion without judgment; that is, it allows him to entertain the very real existence of evil in the world…alongside the existence of good…in isolation from any moral prerogative” (562).  This is a restatement of Keats’s notion that “the strengthening of one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.” The job of the poet is not to sway the reader on a particular thought, but by denying the self and memory, personal philosophy and politics have no place in true poetic art.

One of the best poetic examples demonstrating the idea of the chameleon poet is Keats’s fragment “Where’s the Poet?” (Cox 296).

’Tis the man who with a man

Is an equal, be he King,

Or poorest of the beggar-clan,

Or any wondrous thing

A man may be ’twixt ape and Plato  (Cox 296)


The true poet must be able to be a “King”, a “beggar,” an uneducated “ape”, and a philosopher “Plato,” all at the drop of a hat.  The true poet needs to put on any hat he wishes, whenever he wishes, in pursuit of true art.

Keats not only tried to be a chameleon poet in his poetry, but also in how he published his works.  The multiplicity of published versions of his poetry “has ramifications for the ontological identity—sometimes called the ‘mode of existence’—of any specific work in the canon….” (Stillinger 15). The development of the poet had to be chameleon in nature, and so  did the development of the art itself.  This has lead to the multiplicity of different Keats:  “the Keats of the boldly inscribed fair copies; the Keats first known to the public in the magazines and the three original volumes; the posthumous Keats, creator of the one hundred poems first published after his death; the personal Keats seen in the privacy of his surviving letters; the Keats who was the beloved friend at the center of what we now call the Keats Circle; the Keats of the various portraits; and the Keats who served as artistic collaborator” (Stillinger 23).

Truth therefore is tipped on its head, and unity in Keats’s poetry becomes blurred. Abrams discussed, concerning the primary issue of the mid-twentieth century New Critics, “who read Keats’s poems with the predisposition to find coherence, unity, and ironies; it is no less the issue for post-structural theorists, who read the poems with the predisposition to find incoherence, ruptures, and aporias” (Abrams 36).  Analysis of his poetry grows difficult; critique needs to deal with the development of his craft and poetic philosophy instead of reading his work within the lens of a traditional critical theory, to look at his technique and development of “metamorphosis and biological and natural imagery” (Young 274).

While Keats proposes that the poet not have “a select party” of thought, the only opinion held by the poet should be the importance for the creation of art itself.  “Only on one subject does he profess to have any fixed opinions,” Massoon observes:

namely, on his own art or craft. “I have not one opinion,” [Keats] says, “upon anything except matters of taste.” This is one of the most startling and significant sayings ever uttered by a man respecting himself.  If I am not mistaken, the definition which Keats here gives of the poetical character corresponds with the notion which is most popular.  Though critics distinguish between “subjective” and “objective” poets, and enumerate men in the one class as famous as men in the other, yet, in our more vague talk, we are in the habit of leaving out of view those who are called “subjective” poets, and seeking the typical poet among their “objective” brethren, such as Homer and Shakespeare.”  (374)

It is this objectivity that goes along with Keats’s notion of the poet being the most unpoetical thing.  A subjective poet inserts his opinions into his writing; the objective poet denies his ego—“the poet has…no identity—he is [therefore] the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.” 

Just like a catalyst dissolves during a chemical reaction, speeding up the reaction and disappearing without a trace after that reaction, Keats also felt that as part of the poetical character, metamorphosis and dissolving into poetry were ideal elements of a good poet.  Magill takes note of “a recurring theme in Keats’s work…was the fantasy of poetic metamorphosis,” establishing:

The sonnet ‘On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again’ introduces the wish for transformation that will enable the poet to reach Shakespearean achievement.  The metaphor is consumption and rebirth through fire, as adapted from the Egyptian legend of the phoenix bird….  The narrator-poet lays down his pen for a day so that he might ‘burn through’ Shakespeare’s ‘fierce dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.’ To ‘burn through’ must be read two ways in the light of the phoenix metaphor—as reading passionately through the work and as being burned through that reading.  (1774)

Here the adaptation of the phoenix legend, of “consumption and rebirth,” is about dissolving and metamorphosis, where the “narrator-poet” takes part in the process by laying “down his pen” to “‘burn through’ Shakespeare’s ‘firece dispute/ Betwixt damnation and impassion’d clay.’” With the dual meaning of “burn through,” we see Keats’s depth of sensory perception. It also demonstrates his meaning of when he wrote to Percy B. Shelley on August 16, 1820, to “‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore” (Cox 524), so that the reader may be able, through detailed language, discover the multiple meanings of the subject for themselves. The poet, therefore, does not define everything for the reader. Brooks further underlines, “[Keats’s] process of dissolution is suggested by the imagined movement away from the world of clear outlines and sharply drawn distinctions into a world of shadows and darkness” (101).

Another note on dissolving is Keats’s view of love; as we see in Lamia, “Keats saw in the self-annihilating, or ‘identity-destroying,’ power of the imagination an analog to love” (Fraistat 594). Evidence of Keats developing this notion is seen in his correspondence with Fanny Brawne. On July 1, 1819, for example, he wrote:

I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—’twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. …Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled [to hamper or obstruct by entangling] me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been.  (Cox 349–350)

This thing called Love has taught Keats about irrationality (“I am more reasonable this morning,” implying that he was less reasonable “on Tuesday night”), the cruelty of “entrammelling” (which has led to the destruction of his freedom), and a want for her to write him with a letter so “rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate” him.  While these expressions articulate his love, they are negative images supporting how we become “self-annihilated,” or “identity-destroyed,” in love.

While his ‘Mansion of Many Apartments’ was more to establish a comparison for human life, one could argue its application as part of the development of the poetic character. In his May 3, 1818, letter to John Reynolds, Keats describes:

The first [of the apartments] we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there forever in delight: However, among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man…whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil.  We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel “the burden of the Mystery.”  (Cox 245)

Another way of putting this would be: before a poet realizes his native gift, he would be in the “infant or thoughtless Chamber.” Accumulating experience, through slow development and maturity, rooted strength, and leisure for growth, the poet could embark on the voyage of conception, in the bliss of the “Chamber of Maiden Thought,” reveling in the art of stylistic copying and mimicry, while understanding the limitations of those he is copying, developing his craft in illustration, imagery, and detail. There comes a time, however, when understanding the relationship between sensation, memory, and imagination, that through imaginative identity, the poet must negate his ego. By denying his self, he thereby transitions into the development of the poetical character, entering into passages that are “gradually darken’d” and “all leading to dark passages.” The poet then is not to moralize what he sees (“We see not the balance of good and evil”), but report through these new experiences the objects and sensations he is feeling, and more importantly, if these objects and sensations are sufferable, the poet must not flee for an escape. Muir notes the following:

When the poet turns from the imaginary world of his creating to the actual world, his imagination is “Lost in a sort of Purgatory blind.” [Keats] is dissatisfied with escapist poetry, and not strong enough to cope with the problems of good and evil.  He convinces his “nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and Oppression.” The “Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d” and he feels the “burden of the Mystery”.  Such speculations inevitably interfere with the enjoyment of the present, so that the “Epistle to Reynolds]” Keats declares that “It is a flaw/In happiness, to see beyond our bourn, — /It forces us in summer skies to mourn, /It spoils the singing of the Nightingale.” (305)

We will delve deeper into “the singing of the Nightingale” later.

In sharp contrast to the misty ‘Mansion of Many Apartments’, Keats proposes a positive purpose in life in his February to May 1819 letter to George and Gorgiana Keats:

Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making.” Then you will find out the use of the world…I say “Soul making.” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence.  There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions—but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.  …This is effected [sic] by three grand materials…Intelligence—the human heart…and the World or Elemental space…for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.  (Cox 330)

Keats speculates here on the possibility of “every human being” containing “a spark of divinity called soul.” This soul, however, “does not attain an identity until that soul, through the medium of intelligence and emotions, experiences the circumstances of a lifetime” (Magill 1771).  De Man expands on this saying, “The pattern of Keats’s work is prospective rather than retrospective; it consists of hopeful preparations, anticipations of future power rather than meditative reflections on past moments of insight or harmony” (537).  We are not in a vale of tears—“meditative reflections on past moments”—possibly hurtful memories of negative sensations—but in a world “of hopeful preparations, anticipations of future power”—a vale of soul-making. Chandler clarifies all of this, arguing that “this exercise is just as obviously an effort to recuperate the concept of the soul from those who would deny it outright.  The sense of a historical present, defined by the tension between enlightenment analysis and Christian superstition, seems very much assumed in Keats’s rhetoric here” (633–634).  Keats believes in the existence of divinity as soul, but not in the traditional sense of the “chrystain [Christian] religion” (Cox 330).

The final piece of poetical character is hidden in Keats’s study of Hazlitt and his thoughts on passion. In one of his marginal notes when reading Hazlitt’s gusto, Keats’s scribbled, “If we compare the Passions to different tuns [sic] and hogsheads of wine in a vast cellar—thus it is—the poet by one cup should know the scope of any particular wine without getting intoxicated—this is the highest exertion of Power, and the next step is to paint from memory of gone self storms” (Bate “Negative Capability” 27–28).  Another throw back to the denial of escapist poetry (“the poet by one cup should know the scope of any particular wine without getting intoxicated”), Keats’s understanding of Hazlitt’s passion, or gusto, is that it is “the highest exertion of Power,” and its purpose is “to paint from memory of gone self storms”—that is, to use gusto to relate accumulated experience to the reader. In Hazlitt’s own words from his essay On Gusto, he discusses how “there is hardly any object entirely devoid of expression, without some character of power belonging to it, some precise association with pleasure or pain: and it is in giving this truth of character from the truth of feeling, whether in the highest or the lowest degree, but always in the highest degree of which the subject is capable, that gusto consists” (597). Gusto and passion are the glue necessary to keep the different aspects of the poetical character together, in the understanding of all objects containing “character of power,” and it’s the poets ultimate purpose to provide “this truth of character” in contrast to how the poet feels about the object (“the truth of feeling”) “in the highest degree,” where gusto resides.

Having all the pieces of the puzzle necessary in building his philosophy, and the glue (gusto) to keep it all together, Keats could now venture forth in constructing the ultimate ideal of a poet’s craft: Negative Capability.

2i. Approaching Negative Capability

Keats’s journey was centered around one elusive goal, which he briefly described in a random letter to his brothers George and Tom, and never speaks of ever again.  On January 5, 1818, he wrote, “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” (Cox 109). Negative Capability seems to combine most, if not all, of what was discussed above from native gift to poetical character.  Bromwich described Negative Capability as “a mood of susceptible imagining that can lead to poetry, because it does not settle in certainty or any wish for enlightenment or edification.  It seems a mood of nervous (not irritable) unease, whose peculiarity is that it never tends to resolve itself into satisfaction” (184–185). Edwards speculated that “this type of creative mind can make a positive strength out of doubt; it opposes the definite and the dogmatic in favour of paradox and uncertainty” (51).  Masson went on to contended that it was the “quality that forms men for great literary achievement…a power of remaining, and, as it were, luxuriously lolling, in doubts, mysteries, and half-solutions, toying with them, and tossing them, in all their complexity, into forms of beauty, instead of piercing on narrowly and in pain after Truth absolute and inaccessible” (374). Hough expands on Negative Capability as growing “naturally into a strong active and dramatic tendency, a wish to participate in the life of others, and an understanding of other people that is everywhere evident in the letters” (302).

It is important to note, however, that the purpose of Negative Capability is to foster the process of imaginative development, not thwart it, while harnessing the true character of an object in gusto.  “If I understood [Negative Capability],” commented Levine, “I do not take him to mean I could stop thinking and live the rest of my life as a cabbage or even take too seriously the thrush….  [H]e meant to follow Solomon’s direction and ‘get wisdom—get understanding’” (Levine 209). Negative Capability is meant to drive a poet to understand something about life, humanity—something—especially through the study of an object.

Keats understood that a poet could not truly attain pure Negative Capability.  “Coleridge, for instance,” he continued to write to his brothers, “would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude [truth-likeness] caught from the Penetralium [innermost part] of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge” (Cox 109).  One could, however, come close.

One way was striving for disinterestedness. This deals with denying the ego, as discussed above, but in such a way that the ego does not obstruct discovering the true character of the poetic subject (as always, in gusto).  De Man notes:

Already in Endymion, when Keats is speaking of love and friendship as central formative experience, he refers to these experiences as ‘self-destroying’….  ‘Self-destroying’ is obviously used in a positive sense here, to designate the moral quality of disinterestedness—yet ‘destroying’ is a curiously strong term.  The phrase is revealing, for a recurrent pattern in the poetry indicates a strong aversion to a direct confrontation with his own self; few poets have described the act of self-reflection in harsher terms.  (541–542)

De Man considers Keats’s “self-destroying” view of love—indicating “a strong aversion to a direct confrontation with his own self,” or ego—in relation to disinterestedness as a positive aspect of poetical character.  Muir expands this by explaining how Keats “was anxious to achieve a state of non-attachment, and he was filled with a desire to find a meaning in human suffering so that his own and that of others could in some way be justified” (305).  By becoming non-attached, or disinterested, the poet can write on an object without getting subjected to his suffering; this in turn frees up the poet to find the best means in justifying that suffering.

The second way in which Keats approached Negative Capability was the Wordsworthian wise passivity, which Keats liked to call Indolence (Muir 304).  Wise passivity, according to Symons, gave Keats “the capacity to enjoy sensation without being overcome by it.  He was not troubled about his soul, the meaning of the universe, or any other metaphysical questions, to which he shows a happy indifference, or rather, a placid unconsciousness” (280).  Symons goes on to say how Keats “is willing to linger among imaginative happiness, satisfyingly, rather than to wander in uneasy search after perhaps troubling certainties” (280).

Now that we have an understanding of Keats’s complex cognitive structures, let us look at his work which combined all of them fluidly, smoothly, and poetically:  “Ode to a Nightingale.”

3. A Close Reading of "Ode to a Nightingale" in light of Negative Capability

The choice of a nightingale, besides the fact that most Romantics from Wordsworth to Coleridge, and later to Claire choose the same bird for its poetic power, Keats seems to have had a life-long search for the right bird to objectify as his gusto subject. First, he tried “a silver dove,” possibly echoing Mary Tighe’s Psyche, even speaking of the dove’s “immortal quire [choir]” (Cox 5).  While the dove served its purpose for the young Keats, he seems a little naïve in saying, “Wherefore does any grief our joy impair?” implying that “any grief” does not “impair” “our joy” because of the existence of the silver dove.  He tries another bird image later in “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” with the line “Give me new Phœnix wings to fly at my desire” (Cox 114). While the phoenix is a beautiful image for dissolution and metamorphosis, and very poetic, the only problem is that it is not real; it exists only in mythology. A better muse, especially for the Romantic, would come from real nature.  In his “Epistle to Reynolds,” amongst a “gentle Robin…/Ravening a worm,” we hear “It is a flaw/In happiness to see beyond our bourn,—/It forces us in summer skies to mourn, /It spoils the singing of the Nightingale” (Cox 136). In the “Epistle,” a year before he wrote Nightingale, he found the perfect bird to honor an ode.

In stanza one of Nightingale, we are introduced to the poet’s aching heart, “drowsy numbness pains,” possibly hoping to be killed by hemlock or dulled by an opiate (more likely using the drugs symbolically for a wanting of forgetfulness—“Lethe-wards had sunk”). This is not the first time Keats has used such imagery in his poetry.  In one of his first poems he ever published, he wrote:

Fill for me a brimming bowl,

And let me in it drown my soul:

But put therein some drug designed

To banish woman from my mind:

For I want not the stream inspiring

That fills the mind with fond desiring;

But I want as deep a draught

As e’er from Lethe’s waves was quaft  (Cox 4)

In “Fill for me a brimming bowl,” we find the poet wishing to be drowned in a “drug designed/To banish woman from my mind,” to forget them “As e’er from Lethe’s waves was quaft.” Here, nineteen-year-old Keats wishes to clearly escape the “fond desiring” of the woman.  Twenty-four-year-old Keats is wise enough to know that one cannot escape the suffering of such knowledge, whether it is a woman he would never be able to love or knowing of his own mortality.  Edwards notes that Keats “settles on an unusual explanation” for the way he’s feeling: “‘being too happy in thine happiness’—the power, so prized by Keats, of empathy. Here the intensifier ‘too’ indicates the poet’s awareness that even empathy, the instinct which connects us most nearly with our fellow humans, can be a form of escapism” (41).

In stanza three, the poet seems to consider dissolving philosophically, physically, and poetically. “Fade far away,” sings the poet, “dissolve, and quite forget/What thou among the leaves hast never known,/The weariness, the fever, and the fret/Here, where men sit and hear each other groan” (Cox 458).  The hope in Nightingale is that the poet’s song becomes like the bird’s song, sung with “full-throated ease.” In stanza three, he is telling the nightingale to “fade far away,” and “dissolve” into nature, which is a hope that the poet could too dissolve into nature (philosophically). The poet wishes for the bird to also physically dissolve “among the leaves,” which could also be interpreted that the poet wishes to “leave the world unseen” and “fade away into the forest dim” physically in nature (as seen in stanza two). Stanza three goes on to say, “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/Here, where men sit and hear each other groan,” alluding to a poetic dissolve, where the poet, by getting lost in nature, can find the means possible to forget or at least objectify human suffering.  Then “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” and when “leaden-eyed despairs,/Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes” seems to be a revisiting of when the had “fears that [he] may cease to be,” when he felt that he should “never look upon [beauty] more,” standing alone “on the shore/Of the wide world…and [thought]” (Cox 119).  In “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” the poet feared he would “never…relish in the faery power” but is able to revel in it in Nightingale, at least for a short while.

The poet wishes the nightingale “Away! away! for [he] will fly to [it] at the start of stanza four, so he may pursue the song through imagination and Poesy.  This is the miracle at the center of the poem; in the midst of the despair, darkness, and confusion, the poet’s song and the bird’s song become identical (“Already with thee!”).  This is a moment in the poem where, in gusto, the poet hopes to achieve a level of Negative Capability (“Though the dull brain perplexes and retards”), by denying the poet’s ego (by making the poem not be about himself anymore) and instead change focus to the bird’s song, through the appeal of recreating the poet’s imaginative identity to be that of the nightingale’s.

Midway through stanza one, the poet enters the ode’s Chamber of Maiden Thought, “being too happy in thine happiness,” while listening to the nightingale sing with “full-throated ease.” It becomes “dim” at the end of stanza two, and the “tender…night” arrives in stanza four.  Midway through stanza four, the poet enters the dark passageways (“here there is no light”), becoming exposed to the “verdurous [luscious] glooms and winding mossy ways” and caught in the Mist in stanza five (“soft incense hangs upon the boughs,/…in embalmed darkness”).  Brooks also notes as Keats “moves toward imaginative identification with the nightingale, he moves into a region of ‘verdurous glooms’ and into the ‘embalmèd darkness” (101); this seems to be an acknowledgement of the Chamber of Maiden Thought in that the poet “moves…into the ‘embalmèd darkness.”

In stanza five, the poet (and the reader) are forced into a slow development and maturity in the poem with beautiful detail. We are brought to the “feet” of the poet, imagining the “soft incense [hanging] upon the boughs” “in the embalmed darkness” (embalmed conjures death imagery, adding to the slowing-down effect). We are then invited into “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;/White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine.” Time quickly matures with the “Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;/And mid-May’s eldest child,/The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine.”

Here, Keats seems to be revisiting themes he discussed in one of his very early sonnets, “After dark vapors have oppress’d our plains.” In that sonnet, through the use of negative modifiers, he introduces us to the moment when the individual physiologically perceives spring—that is, after the “oppression” of winter, that “long dreary season,” when finally a “relieving of [the] pains” of “anxiety” caused by the want of spring to be now.  However, Keats does not describe the moment itself, but the feelings, physiology, and perceptions involved—the internal states of the individual that are changed by the realization that spring has arrived.  For example, he employs the simile “Like Rose leaves with the drip of Summer rains” to compare “the eyelids” playing “with the passing coolness” to further develop the “feel of May” (Cox 15).  This subtle use of the tactile feeling successfully slows down time in the sonnet because the reader is forced to meditate up-close on the dripping “rose leaves” and the poet’s “eyelids,” just like we are forced to slow down in Nightingale to meditate up-close at the poet’s “feet” and “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild.” It is also interesting to note how Keats always connects the human body to nature. Brooks notes how man’s self-consciousness detaches him from nature, but this detachment allows him to see nature as “harmonious and beautiful” (100).

At the end of “After dark vapors,” Keats chooses to conjure the image of “a Poet’s death.” The purpose of this moment could be two-fold.  First, by associating death with all the gentle images of regeneration, death is no longer something to escape from but an experience to embrace and understand. Second, the choice of a Poet dying could be a reference to Negative Capability, that by the Poet allowing himself to be lost in this intimate time of realizing spring, to get caught and seized by the elements of nature, the Poet dissolves and “dies” until the scene, allowing the reader to experience the moment as “harmonious and beautiful.”

Back in Nightingale, in the darkness of the passages of the Chamber of Maiden Thought, the poet is open to listening in the darkness (“Darkling I listen”) as it is growing ever darker. In addition, “darkling” seems to also be term of endearment for Death, because the poet “for many a time/[has] been half in love with easeful Death,” making Death more of a lover to be embraced than an enemy to fear and reject. This love affair with Death becomes so powerful for the poet to the point of “ecstasy”—the poet no longer is considering oblivion through an excess of drug use but an excess in art and poetry in the metaphor of the nightingale’s song. “Death is a horrible dissolution and falling away,” Brooks notes, “but it is also the climax of ecstasy.  It is the alienation and separation but it is also integration and fulfillment” (100).

It is very interesting how Keats coincides the poet’s ecstatic rush with his love affair with Death.  In stanza six, the poet

Call’d [Death] soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air [his] quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!  (Cox 459)

De Man states, “[D]estruction now openly coincides with the appearance of love on the scene, in an overt admission that, up to this point, the moral seriousness of the poems had not, in fact been founded on love at all” (544).  Bougler further asserts that, “Awareness of the existence of such beauty becomes excruciating torture in the presence of death, unless death itself be transformed into the most sensuous experience of all” (307). Death, an experience man naturally wants to shy away from, is something for the poet lovely, envisioning whispering sweet-nothings in the ear of Death (“Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme”), to the point that he finds it “rich to die,/To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/…/In such an ecstasy!”

This love affair, however, does not end with Death but continues on in the sensual song of the nightingale (“Still wouldst thou sing”).  Melancholy enters here because the poet knows that he can get close enough to the song, but he could never become as the bird (“I have ears in vain”). “Logic and the dull brain,” writes Brooks, “would have it that the nightingale, though felt by the hearer in the Ode to be an immortal bird, is simply another instance of Beauty that must die” (99). The poet’s ecstasy in the song (the “high requiem”) will come to an end in nature (“a sod”). Shackford explains, “Men indeed, as a race, survive, but the individual, with all his hopes, his aspirations, his ‘identity’, his potential power of creation, passes, becoming again an integral part of nature,—a sod” (283).

Out of this ecstasy, the poet celebrates and curses the nightingale’s immortality. He first celebrates in admiration of how “No hungry generations tread [it] down,” and how even “In ancient days,” the nightingale’s song was heard “by emperor and clown.” This celebration turns to melancholy when the poet speculates “the self-same song” finding “a path/Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,/She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

Some critics have argued that Keats’s claim of the bird’s immortality a bad metaphor for the art he was trying to create.  As Tate wrote,

[Stanza seven] is the only stanza, as some critic has remarked, which contains a statement contradictory of our sense of common reality. …Keats merely asserts: song equals immortality; and I feel there is some disparity between the symbol and what it is expected to convey—not an inherent disparity, for such is not imaginatively conceivable, but a disparity such as we should get in the simple equation A = B, if we found that the assigned values of A and B were respectively I and 3.  (293)

Critics like Tate contend that because the bird can die, it cannot be “imaginatively conceivable” that just because the bird can sing, and all nightingales have similar songs, it means that the song (or the bird for that matter) is immortal. In addition, neither should the argument that just because the bird does not know it will die that that supports its immortality.

Nightingale was not Keats’s first poem to be accused of illogical reasoning.  In his “Eve of St. Agnes,” there is a scene where he has moonlight pass through a stained-glass window and evoke color. As a natural fact, light emitted from the moon is not strong enough to create such an event.  Lowell defends Keats by arguing:

What if Keats did make the mistake of supposing that moonlight was strong enough to transmit the colour values of stained glass, does it matter a jot?  Would any one wish these stanzas away because they are false to fact?  The truth of art is not necessarily the truth of nature.  Where a poet has made undeniable beauty, the critic does well who refrains from applying a rule of thumb.  (287)

Does the viewer of impressionist art hold the pixilation of the artists’ masterpieces against the painters because the dotting does not seem “true to nature”?  Of course not; when the artists have made “undeniable beauty,” it causes the viewer to “refrain” from accusing the art to be “false to fact.”  Fogle further notes:

The imaginative ideal is in a sense more true because it is more valuable, and the Ode to a Nightingale celebrates the poetic imagination.  As it opposes the ideal to the actual, imagination against commonsense reason, imagination and ideal still predominate.  They stand to their opposites as high against low, apex against base, action against reaction. Ideal and actual meet only as extremes, joined in the circle of experience. But the full power of the poem comes from adding the deadly question, is not the worse the true, the better the illusion?  Should we not change the meaning of truth?  (“Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale” 39)

For Keats, truth is not actuality, but as stated in the Ode to a Grecian Urn, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” (Cox 462).  If we allow reason, to use a Keatsian term, to “entrammel” our imagination, we miss the trees for the forest.

It would be too easy to use actuality to support our claims, especially in scientific experimentation.  But poetry is not about the exploits of deductive reasoning. Any critic to accuse Keats of “bad poetry” because of the apparent illogical argument of the “immortal Bird” might have forgotten about Keats’s love, study, and stylistic copying of Shakespeare.  For it was Shakespeare who said:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;

But you shall shine more bright in these contents

Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.

When wasteful war shall statues overturn,

And broils root out the work of masonry,

Nor Mars his sword not war’s quick fire shall burn

The living record of your memory.

’Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity

Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room

Even in the eyes of all posterity

That wear this world out to the ending doom.

So, till the judgment that yourself arise,

You live in this, and dwell in lover’s eyes.  (169)

In Keats’s study of Shakespeare, he would have learned the immortal power of poetry—that is, how “not marble, nor gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,” how “stone” may be “besmear’d with sluttish time,” how “war’s quick fire shall burn/The living record of your memory,” how “death and all-oblivious enmity” will one day “wear this world out to the ending doom,” but the poet’s subject will “live in this [the poem]—immortally.  He copied Shakespeare, but made it his own.

A poet’s work will live on eternally though he will not. In John Clare’s “The Progress of Rhyme,” he has his nightingale sing with him as a duet (Bate 127–128).  This means, just as the poet’s poem is his song, the nightingale’s song is its own poem. Therefore, just like Shakespeare’s verse will live eternally (though he did not), it is imaginatively conceivable to believe that the nightingale’s song will live immortally (though the bird will not). In gusto, by calling the Bird immortal, Keats was describing the true character of the nightingale in the poetic imagination.

Suddenly, in the heightened ecstasy, one word, forlorn, tolls the poet back to reality. The almost sensual ecstasy is short lived, and the poet is rematerialized, so to speak, in his “sole self.”  “[I]t is at this point,” writes Edwards, “that the poet is brought back to his ‘sole self’ out of his visionary haven. He turns on the fancy, calling his imagination a ‘deceiving elf,’ for not proving a reliable refuge from the world of pain, merely a temporary and fleeting escape” (43).  Muir notes, “Reality breaks in on the poetic dream and tolls the poet back to his self.  Fancy, the muse of escape poetry, is a deceiving elf. Keats expresses with a maximum of intensity the desire to escape from reality, and yet he recognizes that no escape is possible” (306).

Critics seem to have forgotten the importance of Lamia in Nightingale, however. As discussed earlier, Keats saw dissolution as an “analog to love.” The poet in Nightingale is dissolved into the sensual song of the nightingale, brought to the point of ecstasy, where “never was the voice of death sweeter” (Hunt “A commentary on two poems: 1835, 1844” 283), and then brought back to his own body.  This is analogous to the lovers in Lamia who dissolve into one another in sexual intercourse, brought to the point of (short-lived) ecstasy, and then brought back to their own bodies, or “sole selves.” The Dalai Lama in his book Advice on Dying and Living a Better Life describes the short-lived ecstasy part of sexual intercourse, more commonly known as an orgasm, as a “little death” (119).  Therefore, lovers must deny their ego to participate in the sensual song of sexual intercourse, brought to the point of (short-lived) ecstasy in a “little death,” then brought immediately back to reality, forever transformed by the experience. Likewise, the poet in Nightingale is wooed by Death to the point of ecstasy, brought back to his “sole self,” and forever transformed by the experience; “Never was the voice of death sweeter.”  The concept of the “little death” was not the Dalai Lama’s original thought. He admits to borrowing it from Shakespeare, la petite morte, with sexual “death” euphemisms strewn throughout Shakespeare’s work (i.e. “I die in thy lap” from Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing). Keats would have known about this in his study of Shakespeare. This note on the “little death” adds another dimension to the Nightingale poem, making it a non-traditional love poem, where instead of a lover, the muse is Death.

As the poet reflects on his experience, like a lover in bed, listening to the song of the nightingale fade off into the distance, he asks, “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?” Keats never answers the question and leaves it up to the reader to decide.  Reason would dictate it must have been a dream, but we must not let reason hamper the imaginative possibilities. It also would be too easy for Keats to choose one or the other—actuality would dictate that it would have to be either waking or sleeping.  The Keatsian answer would be both.  Unger argued the following:

The answer to the question…‘Do I wake or sleep?’—is, Both. In the structural imaginative arc of the poem, the speaker is returned to the ‘drowsy numbness’ wherein he is awake to his own mortal lot and no longer awake to the vision of beauty. Yet he knows that it is the same human melancholy which is in the beauty of the bird’s ‘plaintive anthem’ and in the truth of his renewed depression.  His way of stating this knowledge is to ask the question.  (301)

This answer would leave a rationalist unkempt and fussed.  How could a man be both waking and sleeping? Being an impossibility, however, it seems that this is Keats laughing in spite of rational thought, finally creating a master work where a poet “[was] capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any [irritability] reaching after fact & reason.” In his Ode to a Nightingale, Keats comes his closest in reaching his poetic ideal of Negative Capability.  Therefore, John Keats was a dreamer, but he surely was no stupid, naïve, pigheaded dreamer, as described by Lockhart. Keats transformed poetry and will continue to have lasting effects on the genre hundreds of years after his short life, just as his poetic mentor William Shakespeare—“Till love and fame to nothingness do sink” (Keats).

Works Cited

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