Ode to a Grecian Urn by John Keats

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The Upside of Negative


Negative. It sounds so…negative, doesn’t it? And yet, in the “up is down and down is up” world of poetry, negative can prove a high compliment. Ask John Keats, the wunderkind of poetry. In a December 1817 letter to his brothers, he wrote:

…and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously–I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Hmn. Sounds like the exact opposite of Walt Whitman’s Learn’d Astronomer. In fact, I wonder if old Walt used Keats’ quote as inspiration.

This is my last riff on Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry, but instead of commenting on the final chapter, I thought I’d comment on Chapter 7, “Negative Capability,” because, at first glance, it looks like something a poetry editor might write on a rejection slip. But, no. Keats! What Keats would, later in the same letter quoted above, call “half knowledge.”

MZ thinks it akin to a state of reverie (just west of the State of New Hampshire, I think), a place where one can find truths due to being unsure. A Utopian state, then, for both writers and readers of poetry (the former, because the wonder is a siren call to the Muse; the latter, because it opens one up to the possibilities that poetry is famous for exploring).

Zapruder writes, “This is what negative capability means in poetry, to be in the state where you can accept a succession of things, especially if they contradict each other, in order to allow within yourself an experience that you will not have elsewhere in life.”

What I did not know until reading this chapter was Keats’ almost religious preoccupation with Shakespeare. He used the Bard as a constant source of inspiration. (And here I am, resting on decades-old laurels because I took not one but two Shakespeare courses in college–one on the comedies and one on the tragedies. Shakespeare is not a “been there, done that” kind of writer, Keats reminds us. After reading this, I have decided to embark on a rereading schedule that periodically uses the plays as an inspirational interstice between my regular reading. Once a month, or every other?)

Zapruder uses Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” as an example of the negative capability theory. “If in reading the poem you get distracted by an irritable need to come up with a consistent, coherent set of ideas that the speaker has in his feelings about the urn, an overall message about the urn, or silence, or time, or mortality, instead of thinking about the statements of the poem as a series of deeply felt, shifting, even contradictory thoughts, you will miss what is truly great about the experience of reading it. Maybe poems are not to be read for their great answers, but for their great, more often than not unanswerable, questions.”

Luckily, MZ remembers to warn us that not finding a definite single meaning to poems doesn’t mean we are free to believe whatever we wish them to mean. That is a common student overreaction, one many a teacher of poetry bangs his head against the wall over. Rather, we are in middle ground here, hoping to encourage not one and not many interpretations while staying close to the text and accepting the poet’s musings as something triggered within the realm of doubtful possibility. (Clear as muddy water, right?) Bottom line: Personal reactions are OK on a personal level, but should not be wildly and openly declared as the true secret meaning of the poor poet, who might mightily object were she present (or alive).

If the thought of negative capability is liberating, you’ve read Zapruder (channeling Keats) well. Men of Science need not apply. People with all the answers can go directly to jail without passing go. Leave the mysteries to the readers and writers of poetry. And, in the name of Keats, reconnect with your Bard, won’t you? All the truths of human nature are mysteriously there!

(And, as this is my last post on Zapruder’s book, I’d like to personally thank him for the inspiration his book provided. Thanks again, Matthew!)