negative capability: John Keats coined this term in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas (December 21, 1817). He wrote:
several things dove tailed 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 man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
The displacement of the poet’s protean self into another existence was for Keats a key feature of the artistic imagination. He attended William Hazlitt’s Lectures on the English Poets (1818) and was spurred further to his own thinking by Hazlitt’s groundbreaking idea that Shakespeare was “the least of an egotist that it was possible to be” and “nothing in himself,” that he embodied “all that others were, or that they could become,” that he “had in himself the germs of every faculty and feeling,” and he “had only to think of anything in order to become that thing, with all the circumstances belonging to it.” Keats took to heart the ideal of “disinterestedness,” of Shakespeare’s essential selflessness, his capacity for anonymous shift-shaping. In a letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818), he describes the selfless receptivity he considers necessary for the deepest poetry. He exults in the poetic capacity for total immersion, for empathic release, for entering completely into whatever is being described:
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 as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous Philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet . . . A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing 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.
Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.