A 19th-century poet’s trick for cultivating a creative mindset

Life as Laboratory
Life as Laboratory

If you’re a musician, writer, or other creative type, you’ve probably felt pressure at some point to cultivate a unique artistic “brand.” That could mean sharing opinions about developments in your field on Twitter, carefully curating your aesthetic on Instagram, or otherwise endeavoring to establish a firm identity that will at once distinguish you from others in your profession and make your work easily recognizable.

But while establishing a brand is good for business, it may be antithetical to the essence of real creative work. According to the Romantic English poet John Keats (1795-1821), artists of fixed opinions suffered from “egotistical sublime,” obsessing over singular truths to the point that they were unable to produce characters and storylines that convincingly diverged from their personal world views. He argued that the secret to being an artist was to cultivate a mindset he called “negative capability.”

Writing to his brothers in 1817, Keats introduced the concept of negative capability as he discussed Shakespeare’s creativity. “At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” he wrote. “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Creative genius, according to Keats, requires people to experience the world as an uncertain place that naturally gives rise to a wide array of perspectives. This imaginative experience is what energizes and vitalizes literature, says Susan Wolfson, a Princeton English professor and author of Reading John Keats. Only when artists are able to stay open-minded can they write a wide range of characters and human experiences, from antagonists like Milton’s Satan and Shakespeare’s Iago to romantics like Keats’ Isabella. Holding too closely to one’s own view of the world is creatively counterproductive.

True poetical character, Keats believed, “has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character and 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 camelion Poet.” The ideal artist, it seems, is equally enthralled to inhabit the mind of a character who aligns with their personal beliefs and one who is antagonistic to them. For this reason, he made fun of poets who used poetry as a means of constant lecturing and haranguing, including William Woodsworth (Keats’ friend), who told readers how to read his poetry, and John Milton (author of Paradise Lost), who sermonized on the balance of good and evil. Such instructive writing, Keats believed, inhibited the writer’s capacity for nuance.

Keats’ dwelling on the “chameleon poet”—one who “has no identity, [who] is continually filling some other body”—could be easily misinterpreted as a glorification of the weak-minded. But the imperative of negative capability isn’t about being indecisive or making blurry arguments. It’s about cultivating empathy. Artists do their best work when they learn to step outside themselves.

To artists with strong political dispositions, and in times of fierce political conflict, the concept of negative capability may seem threatening. After all, so much of art is driven by political beliefs. However, as Wolfson explains, Keats would not advocate applying negative capability to politics. “Keats was a staunch liberalist, against the monarchy, and a regular reader of The Examiner, a progressive and anti-monarchal newspaper,” says Wolfson. “He had no affection for political thinking on the right wing and viewed it as tyranny.”

Negative capability, then, is an artistic exercise: learning to entertain all sides of a question as a dramatist, poet, or creative thinker. Thus, perhaps the measure of a true artist and intellectual is the ability to embrace both negative capability and personal convictions at once—without letting one inhibit the depth of the other.

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