Document Type


Date of Award



John Keats, Criticism and interpretation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

Frederick Garber

Second Advisor

John Hagan

Third Advisor

Eliane Jasenas


The unity of Keats’s poetry has proved elusive to most scholars. The critical debate which still continues about the “meaning” or “message” in such poems as “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “La Belle Dame,” and “Lamia” seems to indicate that Keats scholarship has even failed to integrate individual poems. The moment we suppose that we have found a stance toward experience which is the author’s, a diametrically opposite position can usually be found, if not in the same poem then almost certainly somewhere else in the canon. Taken as a whole, Keats’s poetry does not pretend to offer an integrated view of or a unified approach to experience in the same sense as do the humanitarianism of Wordsworth’s later poetry, the neo-Platonism of Shelley or the dialectical synthesis of Blake. Instead, Keats had what he cryptically called Negative Capability, a half-articulated criticism of life and poetry which sacrificed the comforts of philosophical order so as to provide for life with all its diversity intact.

Through Negative Capability, Keats attempts to capture life as it exists independent of man’s efforts at reducing it to one orderly, homogeneous whole. Because Keats prizes the reality of diversified life more highly than the artificiality of man’s order, his poems do not try to elevate the particular into the universal or the finite into the infinite. In a sense, we may say that Keats’s poetry is not, unlike that of his major contemporaries, philosophical, if by this we mean the ordering of experience so as to render it unified and complete. To Keats, truth, if it exists at all, is to be found only in the particular, that is, in the object’s finite appearance. To say it another way, truth is not a phenomenon that is universal, but something inextricably bound-up within the object of one’s perception. For Keats, then, the most valuable mode of experience is the empathic imagination.

Walter Jackson Bate has contributed most to the understanding of Negative Capability. Accordingly, this study and all on Negative Capability that have preceded it are much in debt to him. In John Keats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966, [c. 1963]), he says that Negative Capability is founded primarily on two premises. First is the premise of all objective idealism: “what the human mind itself contributes to what it assumes are direct perceptions of the material world…is not, as the subjective idealist argues, something imposed completely ab extra" (p. 238). The second premise involves the familiar Romantic protest against analytical or “consequitive" reasoning as a violation of organic nature (p. 239). To these Bate adds three extensions. First, the problem of form or style. Second, the absolute antithesis of egotism to the ideal which Keats was groping toward in Negative Capability. And third, “the sympathetic potentialities of the imagination” (p. 243). According to Bate, Keats’s “sympathetic absorption in the essential significance of his object…‘overcomes every other consideration’—of deliberating, analyzing, and piecing experience together through ‘consequitive reasoning’” (pp. 249-250). Finally, Bate views Negative Capability as a “plea for openness” because the “heart's hunger for settlement, for finality, cannot be answered unless we shut ourselves off from the amplitude of experience, with all its contradictory diversity” (p. 242).

While Bate has articulated the foundation of Negative Capability, he fails to explore its radical departure from a contemporary Romantic poetic and metaphysical theory. First, Negative Capability postulates a very different relationship between man and nature from the one voiced by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Second, this relationship led to a very different theory of poetry. And third, it explains the appeal to Keats of Greek mythology. Through an understanding of these poetics and metaphysics, I will attempt to prove that Negative Capability helped to shape the theme and structure of many of the poems of 1819. Through an understanding of Negative Capability, Keats’s poems will unify in a way that has eluded scholars thus far. The ambiguity which surrounds the tale of the Knight at arms in “La Belle Dame” and the utter confusion between reality and dream on the part of the narrator in “Ode to a Nightingale” need not conflict with Keats’s affirmation of dialectics in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Ode on Melancholy.” By affirming life’s dialectics, the latter poems leave the amplitude and complexity of experience intact. In short, they do not try to resolve its mystery and uncertainty. However, the former poems are also Negatively Capable in their acceptance of life. This is evidenced in their refusal to step outside of the experience presented in order to achieve a final resolution to its complexity and dilemma.