"negative capability"

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 man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and 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. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this: that with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration. -- Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21 December 1817.

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. -- Letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818.


I am going among Scenery whence I intend to tip you the Damosel Radcliffe -- I'll cavern you, and grotto you, and waterfall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense-rock you, and tremendous sound you, and solitude you. Ill make a lodgment on your glacis by a row of Pines, and storm your covered way with Brambles. -- Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 14 March 1818.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Written around April 1819

Anne Williams, Art of Darkness:

Example of the Male Gothic (p. 214). Hero doomed to early tragic death. "Belle Dame" / beldame. "Belle Dame" as Life-in-Death? Knight loiters at boundary of semiotic and symbolic. The poem "uses Gothic to narrate the prehistory of a speaking subject within the patriarchal Symbolic" (p. 217). Questioner as knight's own voice of reason. Alternation of active and passive in events. Nonverbal "moan" etc.; food (orality); knight is lulled to sleep; first actual language is his sentence of doom. Emphasis of "i" sounds, Kristeva's Semiotic, emergence of "I." The poem "builds a monument to the experience of bliss with the feminine, bliss forbidden and effaced by the Law of the Fathers" (p. 222).


We are every where entertained with pleasing Shows and Apparitions, we discover imaginary Glories in the Heavens, and in the Earth, and see some of this Visionary Beauty poured out upon the whole Creation; but what a rough unsightly Sketch of Nature should we be entertained with, did all her Colouring disappear, and the several Distinctions of Light and Shade vanish? In short, our Souls are at present delightfully lost and bewildered in a pleasing Delusion, and we walk about like the Enchanted Hero of a Romance, who sees beautiful Castles, Woods and Meadows; and at the same time hears the warbling of Birds, and the purling of Streams; but upon the finishing of some secret Spell, the fantastick Scene breaks up, and the disconsolate Knight finds himself on a barren Heath, or in a solitary Desart. -- from Spectator, #413, 24 June 1712; cited Stillinger, Complete Poems of Keats, p. 464.

Eve of St. Agnes


What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth, whether it existed before or not. For I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all in their sublime, creative of essential beauty. . . . The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream: he awoke and found it truth. -- Letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817.

Anne Williams:

Ambrosio in The Monk comparisons with Porphryo, but from rape to rapture (p. 229); framing techniques: Beadsman, Spenserian stanza, echoes of Romeo & Juliet. Keats's poem "does not so much violate the familiar grammar of the Symbolic as ignore it. In 'The Eve' other possibilities, usually repressed, become principles of order" (p. 232). Power of wishing, desire; rich allusions of language; "rose" dissolves binary principles. Romance conventions here "echo our experience of the world just prior to our full creation as speaking subjects" (p. 235); role of pun, "This fluidity, this instability, this refusal to conform to a familiar linguistic patterns" (p. 236). In this poem Keats rescues Romance.

Other notes (DSM):

Medieval setting: maiden in castle; chivalric code, e.g. Beowulf -- Gothic here as symbol of false power, etc.; distancing: took place ages ago; Spenserian stanza (Faery Queen: already archaic); conscious archaism of language.

Thus story of a hero ... or is he? Madeline acting on a whim (l. 55, stanza 7); she is"hoodwinked" (l. 71, stanza 8). Subscribes to "St Agnes": ostensible Christian saint, but pagan myth behind (like sites of British churches). Adolescence of, regressive in sleep, "As though a rose should shut, and be a bud again" (l. 243, stanza 27).

"Rescue" by Porphyro. Name of 3rd C. neoplatonic philosopher, magician, and notable enemy of Christianity: "He has universally been called the greatest enemy which the Christian religion had" (Lempriere). Porphyro achieves a kind of magic, extracts Madeline from the dark castle; but also a voyeur? Rape? Madeline a "tongueless nightingale" (l. 206, stanza 23) -- rape of Philomel story.

At any rate, principle of castle rendered impotent, associated with death (final stanza). A kind of death from which Madeline escapes: cf. the hoodwinked knight of "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and Lycius in Lamia.

return to Gothic course

Document prepared October 22nd 2000 / additional material October 24th 2000