In a letter dated 22 December, 1817, the poet John Keats coined the term “negative capability” and defined it this way:
I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & 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 & reason.
Keats thought, in other words, that one of the things that made Shakespeare so powerful was his ability to sublimate his own individual assumptions and persona—that is, make himself a negative—and thereby sympathetically enter into “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”—presumably both metaphysical ones AND those of his psychologically bottomless and complex characters (like Hamlet)—without running to any premature and oversimplifying “rational” closures upon any of them.
In other words, Shakespeare was the ultimate good listener; a man with an exquisitely receptive ear for the fathomless and paradoxical depths of BEING—metaphysical and material, as well as human.
In the Virginia Quarterly Review (April 1, 2005), the poet Galway Kinnell offers a similar expansive spin on Keats’s notion of negative capability, suggesting that negative capability includes not just a metaphysical suspension of judgment—allowing mysteries to be mysteries—but the Shakespearean power to “obliterate” oneself and walk, as it were, in the shoes of other beings (human and non-human!):
Walt Whitman had Keatsian “negative capability”—a certain shapelessness of personality, a peculiar power to obliterate himself and flow into some other being and speak it from within—and speak himself in the process. “I am the man—,” he wrote, “I suffered—I was there.” A transaction seems to occur: Whitman gives whatever he flows into a presence in human consciousness, and in return, this other thing or creature gives Whitman a situation and vocabulary which enable him to see and articulate his own being in a new way.
With this expansive definition, we might thus say that some—even a considerable portion—of President Barack Obama’s success can be attributed to his gift for Shakespearean, Keatsian, and Whitmanian negative capability. It’s what makes him a good writer, a soaring orator, an attentive listener, and an empathetic politician.
And in this sense, it seems fair to say that literature not only supports the moral and rational faculties, but has the capacity to actually train them to greater attentiveness, sympathy, and intellectual openness.
It may not be a coincidence that Barack Obama has been a lifelong and intense reader of literary fiction—including the plays of Shakespeare.
Below is a wonderful example of negative capability, in which Whitman is asked by a child, “What is the grass?” Whitman proceeds to imaginitively “inhabit” the grass, all the while refusing to bring the grass’s “meaning” to a closure. Also notice here that Whitman, in his quick-minded and rapid-fire shift of perspective—as if turning round a diamond—definitely recalls Shakespeare, and so captures the method of imaginitive energy and openness that no doubt drew Keats to his originial insight:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.