John Keat’s ‘negative capability’ and COVID-19

John Keats by Joseph Severn

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation 

(Click on this link to hear a recorded version of the following piece)


Whilst returning home from a Christmas pantomime in 1817 the poet John Keats (1795-1821) got into conversation with his friend Charles Wentworth Dilke (1789-1864). Thanks to a letter to his brothers we know that during this conversation several things ‘dovetailed’ in Keats’ mind, and

“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 a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason — Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.”

So what did Keats mean by negative capability

Well, it’s important to begin by noting that Keats did not use the word ‘negative’ in a pejorative fashion but, instead, he used it to point to what he saw as the positive fact that any given person’s fullest potential is always defined as much by what they do not possess as by what they do. 

Keats then turned to the example of Coleridge to help him make his point. As far as Keats was concerned, the problem with Coleridge was that he was a person who could not let that which was genuinely uncertain, mysterious or doubtful remain simply that. This is what Keats meant when he suggested Coleridge would be a better poet were he able to stay with some ‘fine verisimilitude’ (i.e. something beautiful and credibly true) that had suddenly whooshed up from the ‘Penetralium’ (i.e. the innermost or most secret part or place of mystery) without instantly and irritably reaching after fact and reason to explain that same beautiful and credibly true thing. In sum, Keats criticised Coleridge for ‘being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.’

Having said this, however, there are obviously certain contexts when remaining content with half-knowledge is a stupid and dangerous approach. Think of the COVID-19 pandemic where we currently have millions of people around the world who are quite happy to rest content with the scantiest knowledge about how viruses will continue to do their deadly and destructive thing regardless of their own willingness to proclaim either baseless and dangerous conspiracies theories about the virus and the vaccine and/or to promote an unfounded boosterism about how wonderfully well things will pan out.

On the other hand, there are contexts when remaining content with half-knowledge is a wise and helpful approach. Think of how, for all the irritable reaching of so many people, still no one understands from where or how faith, hope, love, storytelling, art, poetry and song whoosh-up from some mysterious source, suddenly to transform lives being lived in fear and anxiety into lives capable of being lived with a certain equanimity, compassion and modest joy — even in the midst of a deadly pandemic. It would clearly be unwise to dismiss or seek to block access to such a source of living energy simply because it continues stubbornly to resist our irritable reaching and full understanding. 

We can, and clearly should, irritably reach after fact and reason when tackling things like the workings of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Experience tells us, not least of all in the form of the current crop of vaccines, that in this context such an approach works. So all praise and gratitude for the irritable reaching of our scientists and their hard-won facts and reasons.

But, at the same time, we know we are being foolish if we try the same approach with the mysterious source of being which gifts humanity with countless experiences of faith, hope, love that, in turn, generate stories, art, poetry and song which help us continue to live creatively, compassionately and well. As Keats saw, we have no choice but to learn gracefully to accept these ‘fine verisimilitudes’ whenever they whoosh-up within and among us from the ‘Penetralium’ because no irritable reaching after fact and reason will ever fully explain their truth and beauty to us. 

I hope that, at our best, here in this liberal religious community we will continue to help each other cultivate the wisdom of knowing when it is appropriate to reach irritably for fact and reason, and when we should rest content with half-knowledge. 

But let’s not forget that this wisdom is itself an art and, therefore, it will always be a kind of half-knowledge. With this challenging truth, we must also learn to rest content.