Monday, 16 November 2009

Negative Capability

John Keats may have been one of the people who has saved me from ossified religion (which does seem to be its most admired, common and flourishing form).

We’ve just been to see Bright Star, the newly opened film which doesn’t do much more than trace Keats and Fanny Brawne falling in love, but does so entrancingly. Afterwards I took down my Sixth Form Keats.

I discovered how fragmentary is my recollection of the great Odes, and I also discovered endless detailed pedestrian comments scribbled in the margins, reminding me for all the world of Brawne in the film innocently exposing how little she had learnt from the lessons in poetry Keats had given her.

I did not have any memory of the poem Bright Star at all, and I found no scribbles in the margins next to it, so I assume that taking a class of adolescent boys through the sonnet about Keats’ wish to be constantly ‘pillowed upon my fair love’s ripening breast’ wasn’t regarded as an essential teaching exercise.

But those Sixth Form lessons were not lost time. There are two things from the volume which have stayed part of my perception since and to which I’ve returned often.

One is the sense in On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer of how a fresh intellectual insight or discovery can be like a new world opening up:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific, and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

The other is the famous thought captured in an 1817 letter to his brothers:

Several things dovetailed in my mind, 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.

I’m most at home with faith which is silent in the face of mystery and which is not restless in the face of ambiguity, and the Keats who appears to have been there first still provides these definitive expressions of why this should be so.

I took the photograph at about four o’clock.

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