John Keats and “negative capability”

This article provides a good summary of a concept developed by the poet John Keats: negative capability.

 

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Keats – On Joy and Sorrow

Fragment: Welcome Joy, and Welcome Sorrow

“Under the flag
Of each his faction, they to battle bring
Their embryo atoms.”
Milton

Welcome joy, and welcome sorrow,
Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather,
Come to-day, and come to-morrow,
I do love you both together!
I love to mark sad faces in fair weather,
And hear a merry laugh amid the thunder;
Fair and foul I love together;
Meadows sweet where flames burn under;
And a giggle at a wonder;
Visage sage at Pantomime;
Funeral and steeple-chime;
Infant playing with a skull;
Morning fair and storm-wreck’d hull;
Night-shade with the woodbine kissing;
Serpents in red roses hissing;
Cleopatra, regal drest,
With the aspics at her breast;
Dancing Music, Music sad,
Both together, sane and mad;
Muses bright and Muses pale;
Sombre Saturn, Momus hale,
Laugh and sigh, and laugh again,
Oh! The sweetness of the pain!
Muses bright and Muses pale,
Bare your faces of the veil,
Let me see, and let me write
Of the day, and of the night,
Both together, – let me slake
All my thirst for sweet heart-ache!
Let my bower be of Yew,
Interwreath’d with Myrtles new,
Pines, and Lime-trees full in bloom,
And my couch a low grass tomb.

This poem, composed in 1818, was not published during Keats’ lifetime. I’ve also found it titled “A Song of Opposites.”

Keats opens with a misquotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The scene is from Book II, lines 899-901. Satan confronts Sin and Death, who guard the Gates of Hell, only to find that Sin is his daughter, and Death is his son. After Sin unlocks the nine gates, they gaze upon Chaos, depicted as a roiling, clashing mix of elements.

Before their eyes in sudden view appear [ 890 ]
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, & highth,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, Ancestors of Nature, hold [ 895 ]
Eternal Anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless Wars, and by confusion stand.
For hot, cold, moist, and dry, four Champions fierce
Strive here for Mastery, and to Battle bring
Their embryon Atoms; they around the flag [ 900 ]
Of each his faction, in their several Clans…

Lethe — one of the rivers of Hades, the Greek underworld. Here is Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book II, in which he describes the five rivers of hell, ending with a description of Lethe:

Far off from these a slow and silent stream,
Lethe the River of Oblivion rules
Her watery Labyrinth, whereof who drinks,
Forthwith his former state and being forgets, [ 585 ]
Forgets both joy and grief, pleasure and pain.

“Lethe’s weed, and Hermes’ feather” — “The contrast is between dull obliviousness and mercurial sharpness” – Oxford World’s Classics edition footnote. Hermes is the swift and clever messenger of the gods in Greek mythology (known as Mercury by the Romans).

night-shade — Following the pattern of the poem, Keats is likely referring to deadly nightshade, or belladonna, a highly poisonous plant. According to Wikipedia: “Most parts of the plant, its leaves, its berries are known to be very poisonous. Children have died from eating as little as three berries. One leaf contains enough poison to kill an adult. The root usually contains the most poison.”

wood-bine –commonly called honeysuckle; a flowering plant.

aspic — obsolete spelling of asp

asp — Anglicized form of aspis, the name used in classical antiquity for a venomous snake, probably the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje). The asp was the symbol of royalty in Egypt, and its bite was used for the execution of criminals in Greco-Roman times. Cleopatra is said to have killed herself with an asp. (Although this is disputed by a German scholar, who argues that she opted for a more effective method of suicide.)

Death of Cleopatra

Death of Cleopatra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Momus — God of Satire. Momus is so interesting that I’m going to have to post about him.

Hale — having exceptional health and vigor