The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume D: The Romantic Era, last updated in 2018, includes among its selections from the works of John Keats a document titled "Negative Capability"--in brackets. The document is Keats's letter of 21 or 27 [?] December, 1817 to his émigré brothers George and Tom. As the brackets indicate, the letter is not, in fact, an essay on the concept of Negative Capability, but that is how the letter has long been read. After all, it features the phrase clearly and prominently. Yet in this classroom edition, no part of the critical apparatus explains the provenance of the letter.
That pedagogical practice may need to change, and rather quickly, because of this collection of essays. A new instalment of the Liverpool University Press series Romantic Reconfigurations, this book significantly and provocatively reconfigures our understanding of Keats's poetry and letters, his authorial intentions, his aesthetic philosophy, and his global legacy.
In and beyond Keats's thought, this reassessment of "negative capability" begins where headnotes in Romantic period anthologies should, with the exceedingly dubious origin of the aforementioned letter. A holograph manuscript has never been found, on either side of the pond. Nor was "negative capability," per se, ever mentioned anywhere else by Keats or his Regency contemporaries. The text of the letter was first published in 1845, in a transcription by John Jeffrey of Kentucky, the second husband of the widow of Keats's brother George. Given Jeffrey's error-riddled transcription of other Keats letters that do survive in the original, his transcription of the December 1817 letter radiates an air of what Keats would call "mystery": one that Rejack cannot resist investigating. Unapologetically reaching after fact and reason, Rejack's contribution to the anthology--the second essay in its lineup--outlines the rhetorical ramifications of various possible editorial misprisions on Jeffrey's part, and, in a manner of which Keats would approve, refuses to endorse any one over the others. So the first textual appearance of Negative Capability (if that was even the neologism correctly transcribed) must remain an exemplar of the concept it denotes.
Luckily, this textual archaeology gives Rejack's collaborators ample opportunity to explore the possible meanings of the concept in Keats's work, its reception by his contemporaries, and its repurposing by generations of poets and other imaginative writers and artists. Each of the three sections of the book fruitfully pursues one of those three aims. Following Rejack's opening move, Brian Bates highlights another, less syntactically confusing part of the letter: Keats's mention of his playgoing habits. Doubtful that Keats's letter outlines a high, "tragic vision," Bates points out that Keats probably knew what William Hazlitt and Leigh Hunt thought of the pantomime genre, watched a Christmas panto, described it to his brothers in the December 1817 letter one sentence before apparently mentioning "negative capability," and later reviewed it for a Leigh Hunt publication (16). What might he have learned from the refusal of reason and realism in the panto genre that he might have communicated in the letter as aesthetic theory? By late 1818, Bates claims, the epistolary Keats plays two panto types: a skeptical "ironic clown" and "a magical Harlequin who can revel in worldly buffoonery and deliver a transformative strike that reveals how the seemingly low can become the high and vice versa," as this "Cockney poet" often does. With this harlequinade, Bates writes, "Keats's own pantomimical capability is on full display" (30).
In another close reading of the original letter, Emily Rohrbach follows the pluralization of "mysteries, doubts" to a Keatsian theory of "soul-making" which, she says, demonstrates that "the future ... cannot be predicted through patterns and lessons of the past" nor "rationally controlled, but is subject to the unpredictable alterations of nature" of the individual "heart ... sealed off from social experience" (125). Like other elements of the Cockney School in general and some of Keats's poetry in particular, Rohrbach says, the "heart" is not reducible to class identity either (126).
Comparing Keats's "negative capability" (as John Jeffrey transcribes it) with Hazlitt's neologism, "natural capacity," Theune persuasively argues that this coinage of the celebrated Cockney essayist is what Keats could have meant. Carmen Faye Mathes likewise tracks "negative capability" to the writing of Keats's contemporaries. According to Mathes, the quality traditionally identified with "negative capability" was recognized in Keats's writing by three early readers: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Mathes shows how far their reception of Keats's poetry "pre-figures more recent alliances (both implied and forged) between negative capability and uniquely 'female' ways of knowing." With surprising clarity, it does.
Whatever Keats meant by "negative capability" ("natural capacity" or some other, lost phrase?), later writers have adopted the traditional meaning, as contributors to the volume's final section show. Building on Theune's previous studies of the reception of Keats in America, Richard Archambeau argues that "while the conflicts in postwar American poetry have been both numerous and substantial, very few poets have actually broken with the core precept of Keats's theory of negative capability, and those who have done so have found themselves relegated to the poetic sidelines" (140). In other words, this British poet's concept, as communicated to-- or at any rate via-- his Americanized brothers, has become American poetic dogma. Citing paraphrases of "negative capability" by such prominent analysts as Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom, Archambeau contends that the New Criticism did much to canonize the phrase (142-3). For Americans at least, Archambeau contends, "[t]he core definition of what makes a poem a poem" is Keats's concept--unless, as Rejack and Theune argue, it wasn't necessarily what Keats wrote. See where "reaching after fact and reason" will get you?
Among the most transformative of the essays in the final section of the book is David Sigler's interdisciplinary examination of negative capability and psychoanalysis. Besides serving "as a proto-psychoanalytic concept" in the work of some Romanticists, he argues, it anticipates "negatively capable" aspects of psychoanalysis in its earliest days. Sigler considers how Keats was received by figures ranging from Freud and Lacan to Marion Milner, an English analyst whom Alison Bechdel depicts in her conspicuously negatively-capable graphic memoir/meditation Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012). "[N] egative capability," Sigler contends, gave Milner a tool to "help us locate a middle ground between ignorance" and overconfidence, an instructive lesson for scientific researchers and practitioners (229). With this reading of Keats and Milner, Sigler urges scholars of various fields to "take seriously the challenge that literary thought might present to the psychoanalytic tradition" (231).
One minor weakness of this collection is that some of the contributors to the final section seem certain about the meaning of "negative capability" as well as about the identity of its coiner (Keats, of course). These scholars neither mention John Jeffrey's role in transcribing the phrase nor cite Rejack's analysis of this fact. To do either, of course, they would have had to read Rejack's essay before writing their own, which might have been impractical. One might be grateful for this missed opportunity, however, because it invites the compilation of a second volume of essays on the reception of "negative capability"--one informed by Rejack's doubts and Theune's reasoning.
Rebecca Nesvet is Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin/ Green Bay.