Negative Capability: Poetically Living a Life Full of Uncertainty

On December 21, 1817, the poet John Keats wrote a letter to his brother in which he expressed and named a quality of human existence that’s tricky to articulate. Keats’ formulation has been adopted by philosophers, poets, and others ever since.

Keats wanted to name our ability to simultaneously acknowledge the unpredictable nature of events and conduct ourselves with confidence and happiness. He called this familiar, yet complex, concept negative capability.

Here’s a passage from Keats’ letter referring to his theory: “…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.”

Keats felt that it was great thinkers in particular (like poets, for example) who had the negative capability to see that all life’s big questions can’t be resolved.

(Speaking of poets, why is a Poet Laureate called a laureate? Learn the fascinating history of the word here.)

Scholars believe that Keats explores this idea in several poems, including his famous works “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

It should be noted that while other writers continued to explore negative capability, Keats only explicitly mentioned it once — in the aforementioned letter to his brother. This isn’t the only idea Keats casually mentioned that turned out to be hugely influential, even though he led an infamously tragic life. He died at 25, and his significance as a poet of the Romantic movement became clear only after his death.


  1. Erbie -  February 2, 2014 - 2:49 am

    (Sigh.) Pam, Pam, Pam! You appear to be a living manifestation of the probably (but not certainly) inevitable negative view of Keat’s generally positive concept that some — though probably not all — “men” (sic) — and in all probability at least some women too — are capable of deriving something positive from an inclination, not to say ability, comfortably and constructively to manage 70 [more or less] years of existence in a world that displays — at least to those whose heads are where the Sun does shine — certain uncertainties. On occasion.
    But gibberish? Not a word of it!
    As the movie marquee famously said — or, to be more precise, “read” — “If You Ain’t Seen It, It’s A Premiere.” Which, when considered from one worldview, appears to have a clear (and True, whatever that may be) meaning while to others it seems otherwise.
    Or do you disagree?

    • Cielo -  January 24, 2016 - 5:55 pm

      I love you, Erbie, no matter what the future holds and I don’t care what anybody says. Yours faithfully, Cielo

  2. Pam -  January 8, 2014 - 3:50 pm

    So much gibberish. As are some of the comments on here. Gibberish, gibberish, gibberish.
    Seekers of truth need only to turn to the Bible, which contains the revelation of all the truth whuch God has purposed to reveal to man. The only path to God is through His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

    • Brendon -  January 7, 2015 - 6:16 pm

      Never a book existed containing less gibberish than the Bible

    • Chris -  January 13, 2016 - 3:35 pm

      That is the truth. And if there wasn’t so many people blinded they could see and understand it! But he said that there would be a great falling away before the end and by listening to some it doesn’t seem to be that far off!!

  3. Ding -  January 6, 2014 - 2:26 am

    The wisdom of insecurity. The power of now. Let go let god. Faith. Blissfull ignorance. Denial. Go with the flow.

  4. Ed -  February 27, 2013 - 8:13 pm

    The second book recommended, the one by Joseph Ratzinger–Is that the pope and head of the Catholic Office of the Inquisition who looked the other way so many times while kiddie-raper priests were molesting choirboys, altar boys, and other pubescent and prepubescent members of their parishes that he wound up with a permanent crick in his neck? I’m sure his book is just as infallible as he is (was?). Faith? In an outdated church loaded with misogynistic, perverted, and otherwise misguided priests, bishops, cardinals, and pontiffs? Sure, just as long as you don’t mind giving up the right to think for yourself and can force yourself to believe that priests should get a dispensation for child molestation.

  5. keith -  January 28, 2013 - 4:21 am

    Alfred E. Neuman said it best: “What–Me worry?

  6. Fawzia Khan -  January 27, 2013 - 3:03 am

    One can learn more about similar stuff by reading the English translation of The Quran. Though Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the world, you can only get it all clear by reading and knowing it. It is the only religion that says : Reading is mandatory for all men and women.
    You can get the the juices of beautiful teachings of Islam by going deeper; not by listening to what other people say about it.

    • Becca -  January 19, 2015 - 2:52 pm

      I totally agree with you!! I don’t know very much about Islam, but I do know that it is misunderstood and misrepresented. After all, some of Islam’s Prophets are in the…gasp…Bible! I believe that as long as you are knid and treat others with respect and dignity, it doesn’t matter what religion you are, because most of them represent these ideas!!
      Assalamu Alaikom, Fawzia

      • Dan -  January 1, 2016 - 12:51 am

        None of Islam’s prophets are in the Bible. Christianity is older than Islam. The Bible is older than the copycat Koran. Islam isn’t misunderstood, it is as violent and misogynistic as people say it is. Some of the Bible’s prophets are in the Koran not the other way around.

      • Nick -  January 3, 2016 - 4:11 pm

        Dont encourage religion it’s a cancer.

        • Mike -  January 5, 2016 - 6:37 am


    • Cielo -  January 24, 2016 - 6:10 pm

      Interesting that some sects in Islam ban books, just as some sects do in Christianity. Some godless repressive political movements do also. Under those circumstances the only hope, or optimistic view, is to escape. and that is what immigrants and pilgrims have and do.

  7. Latin Alive! » Dictionary.com Talks Latin! -  January 27, 2011 - 7:25 pm

    [...] looks back to the year departed, and one looks forward to the new and uncertain year ahead. (The poetic term John Keats coined that describes living your life while accepting that it is filled with [...]

  8. Watch Movies Free -  January 12, 2011 - 6:57 pm

    I think you have a great page here… today was my first time coming here.. I just happened to find it doing a google search. anyway, good post.. I’ll be bookmarking this page for sure.

  9. blitz brain -  January 3, 2011 - 12:03 pm

    because its either reaching for fact & reason or just reaching for something after you have discovered fact& reason and the situation is still a mystery?

  10. blitz brain -  January 3, 2011 - 12:00 pm

    when “reaching” was mentioned in keats letter to his brother was that reaching after fact & reason as in searching or reaching for possible certainty in uncertain situations?

  11. Raina bo baina -  January 3, 2011 - 7:37 am

    This article was very interesting…. so was everyone’s comments and own names for this complex ^-^

  12. C.B.S. -  January 2, 2011 - 6:46 pm

    I am just a ederley woman , with not much of a education i dont want to alarm any one but , I do belive any angent religion, i know that i am comuncating with knowalegeable .people reality to electricy ,postive /negative

  13. C.B.S. -  January 2, 2011 - 6:28 pm

    Ireallinjoyed reading the coments ,i find them to be very inlighting
    when i stumble on this weebsite , while looking for a virtouse woman
    it gave wat to me wanting to know more about our planets .
    we all have our own belives

  14. louis paiz -  November 3, 2010 - 8:42 am

    to make judjements is easy who is whom tosay yes they do or they do that only god can deside because he is just . but jest remember that there are groups tha their job is just to chase money and plesase do not tell me that it is only the catholic church taht has been affected by money digers because there are more denominations affected .when they finish sucking the money from churches they will continiue whith which ever has the most, thank you

  15. concerned citizen -  October 29, 2010 - 1:33 pm

    @nes “The secular thinking which blindly ignores the guidance of the Catholic Church…”

    @ tripbeetle Maybe he’s not talking about the awesome moral and ethical guidance of a religious organization that covered up the sexual abuse of little boys for decades in order to avoid scandal.

  16. smoothius -  October 28, 2010 - 8:24 am

    i call it ‘goin with the flow, man’

  17. Ann -  October 26, 2010 - 12:03 pm

    @ Maggie, yeah . . . and people like you sit here and read comments like this all day.

  18. Mark V -  October 26, 2010 - 11:07 am

    They wrote poems about the concept, the concept isnt about poems.

    it’s more like rafting without a paddle. you cannot control anything, you may be able to steer and lean a little bit but youre still going to end up wherever it wants to take you.
    Might as well lean back and get a tan while you’re there.

  19. Amy-Lou -  October 26, 2010 - 7:05 am

    It “could” mean( I’m not sure so don’t get upset if I am wrong.) to live your life is like to live the words of a poem. You can make your own future and by doing so you can also write your own future.

  20. louis paiz -  October 26, 2010 - 5:04 am

    the poet’s mind is the most sacrade of tabernacles where the ideas come and go the dreaming for a better tomorow the union of states end to hungry dream as the ones the eternal prophets have hade of a distint tomorrow and the caming of a savior who may give his life or loosing everithing as mosses did for earning peoples freedom.dreams of eteral cities treasures, food, drinks, the discover of new planets new friends new languages something new and steady in one word enternal peace,paz,paix. thank you

  21. maggie -  October 25, 2010 - 3:09 am

    wow do you people sit here and leave commtents like this all day

  22. tripbeetle -  October 24, 2010 - 6:19 pm

    @nes “The secular thinking which blindly ignores the guidance of the Catholic Church…”
    You mean the same Catholic Church that put Galileo under house arrest for the latter part of his life and didn’t completely lift the ban on his works until as late as 1835? And you consider this bloated, corrupt, authoritarian organization a trustworthy dispenser of benevolent “guidance”? Dream on.

  23. Kuze -  October 24, 2010 - 4:48 pm

    @nes, this is probably not the place for religious propaganda, unless you want to attract criticism from intelligent people for displaying the exact species of closed-mindedness that you accuse others of.

  24. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 24, 2010 - 4:28 pm

    P.S. Also, W. Heisenberg and E. Schrödinger defined it more succinctly in observing the pseudo-’chaotic’ nature [misnomenclatured *] of INVERSE-LAW physics: ‘The closer it gets, the less predictable choice its exit path’. (And then they called that, a “principle”.)


    * [misnomenclature: CHAOS, meant unfathomable, not confused, not random]

  25. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  October 24, 2010 - 4:10 pm

    The problem of articulation there is in defining the ‘voice’ and ‘POV’–

    BLYTHE (neutral voice, external POV);

    NAIVE (critical voice, external POV);

    OPTIMISTIC (neutral voice, auto POV); (also AMBI-MISTIC: Marcia, Great Space Race of the 21st Century);

    FATALISTIC (critical voice, auto POV)

    UNGODLY AGNOSTIC LAZINESS (internal POV– you didn’t hear me say that).


  26. Nathan Hunter -  October 24, 2010 - 3:15 pm

    Here’s my big question I hope will never get solved: Will the world be destroyed in WW3 by nuclear weapons. Now that I think about it, maybe negative capability is good. I mean, if you think that way then you can stop worrying about things that will just make you worry. Maybe I have it wrong, who knows.

  27. Luciennepierre -  October 24, 2010 - 3:13 pm

    If I understand correctly, “negative capability” is that defeatist attitude that we all, at one point or another, have toward things and events we can’t change. The term is surely an oxymoron, too.

  28. Maurice D. -  October 24, 2010 - 3:11 pm

    Uncertainty, unfamiliarity, unknown we all can let go of our doubting mind rooted from fear to embrace them for the fact they are the newness of life has to offer; Release the desire of control & be about it, it’s where the freshness of life resides.

  29. pedro asare frank -  October 24, 2010 - 2:32 pm

    i have no idea for now but you see my stands later

  30. surferdude -  October 24, 2010 - 2:02 pm

    “what do you call the state when you are neither awake nor truly asleep?”

    hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm i would say the half-awake half asleep stage should be called the half awake/half asleep stage… OH! wait are we talking about like de-jah-voo?? I’m confused… ahhhh oh well this is why i didn’t go to college so i wouldn’t have to learn about this crap.

  31. manda -  October 24, 2010 - 2:01 pm


  32. omar -  October 24, 2010 - 1:30 pm

    In Islam, I believe this would be called Tawakkul.

  33. Boucenna Cherif -  October 24, 2010 - 12:57 pm

    I think the way these questions are asked doesn’t help to attract people and gives the opportunity to express themselves and say what they think.

  34. notmarble -  October 24, 2010 - 12:30 pm

    The definitive text on this qeustion is John Middleton Murray, KEATS AND SHAKESPEARE, perhaps the best exposition ever conceived of what the truly great poets are and how they accomplish what they accomplish.

  35. Debra -  October 24, 2010 - 12:23 pm

    Hey waitaminnit. I can see the polar bears from my house.

  36. Debra -  October 24, 2010 - 12:21 pm

    1. I read it is a similar capacity, to clearly see how terrible things are without succumbing to despair, looking away, or whitewashing, and yet maintaining confidence for rescue that is the deciding factor in whether or not prisoners will live through concentration camps and POW camps.

    2. There are no polar bears in Wasilla.

  37. Heidi -  October 24, 2010 - 11:47 am

    *Loved* Dimmy’s comment (“Dudism”). Great stuff. And it seems almost ironic to be classifying and labeling (scientific procedure, no?) a poetic concept based in the realm of relative keep-your-head-in-the-clouds-ness.

  38. Ann -  October 24, 2010 - 10:07 am

    @ Tilley- I think that you are missing a point: The poem to the poet is life – the poet’s expression of life. The article explains:
    “Keats felt that it was great thinkers in particular (like poets, for example) who had the negative capability to see that all life’s big questions can’t be resolved.”
    Negative capability is a philosophical understanding of the great poets who use language to express what occurs in life. It does not stop at the shallow level of recognizing ambiguities inherent in language . . . it is an art of creating an expression of life by weaving those ambiguities into a poem.

  39. Irene -  October 24, 2010 - 9:21 am

    I don’t know, but I’m not a deep person.

    I’m thinking, “unbeknowst reality”

    You living life, but you don’t know what the future brings. It’s foolish to think you can predict what’ll happen in the future. Unless you’re that much of a pretentious jerk who has it all planned out and is so confident that’ll it will all end on high note because you said so, I don’t think that’s realistic. That would be called “egotistical bullshit”

  40. Tilley -  October 24, 2010 - 9:16 am

    This could be one interpretation of what he meant–and I stress “could”– but I don’t think this is exactly what he meant, and it seems like questionable journalism to state that this is what he meant.

    It applies more to poetry and less to life–that is why he mentions Shakespeare– and that poetry dwells in uncertainties or ambiguities. That the poet is one who is OK with the ambiguities inherent in language, and often is one who exploits–increases– them. “Macbeth” is an excellent example of this.

    Think about how many of Shakespeare’s sonnets revolve around paradoxes? Or in his plays, like “Measure for Measure”, where lust/love is compared to a poison that increases one’s thirst but which is only abated by drinking more of the poison. Therefore the cure is also the cause and lust is only increased the more it is satisfied.

    Go ahead and delete this post if you want–like you always do– but this is a questionable article at best.

  41. r muralimohan -  October 24, 2010 - 7:03 am

    you are simply “aware”

    you live in the present .. recognizing that life is full of potholes ,hair pin bends and unpredictable turns.

    its a state of mind that ‘receives’ and ‘responds’.

  42. NEGATIVE CAPABILITY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  October 24, 2010 - 6:02 am

    [...] Negative Capability or thinking and living outside the box. — Disagreeing that Faith is a necessity and saddened what commentators have done to the image of a beautiful fox. — Not buying into anything but not being an absolute cynic — “Get thee to a Nunnery” and health care should be more than a free clinic. — We have no wish to be like everybody else or belong to any specific group. — Yet the possibilities are endless from Czarnina to other “Duck Soup” — “Negative Capability” is finding where is your Flow. — Whatever “Floats Your Boat” for us deflecting labels as we go. — And Keats we ain’t — regardless of what picture we paint. — There is no absolute truth except in Mathematics. — Everything else is perspective and interpretation especially for the Dumaddicts. –>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

  43. sue dinnim -  October 24, 2010 - 5:10 am

    @david barr—Why didn’t u just say u don’t like palindroning

  44. kriscrisu -  October 24, 2010 - 4:02 am

    I also think it should be Keats’ in two places, not Keat’s.

  45. Nimal Fernando -  October 24, 2010 - 1:49 am

    I think the most appropriating word is equanimity

  46. Cyberquill -  October 23, 2010 - 11:53 pm

    I love Sarah Palin, but I do not think that neologisms which are little more than accidents should make it into the dictionary…ever.

    @David Barr: As per your logic, the dictionary would be a fairly slim read.

    PS: Watch how you phrase your affection for Sarah, or Todd will feed you to the polar bears.

  47. Perumaian -  October 23, 2010 - 11:15 pm

    Heart-Mind-Conflicting State

  48. Hans Pfaall -  October 23, 2010 - 10:04 pm

    Very interesting article, but it should be Keats’ in two places, not Keat’s.

  49. successful Dyson -  October 23, 2010 - 8:02 pm

    I wonder that negative capability is something like what Ango Sakaguchi once called depravity.

  50. Dimmy -  October 23, 2010 - 7:39 pm

    Uncertainty Capability
    Mystery Capability
    It’s called, “Not-Being-A-Control-Freak”
    It’s Dudist philosophy
    Yah, man…Dudism…

  51. David Barr -  October 23, 2010 - 4:32 pm

    I love Sarah Palin, but I do not think that neologisms which are little more than accidents should make it into the dictionary…ever.

  52. Michael Dadona -  October 23, 2010 - 3:46 pm

    From the above term and explanations for ‘Negative Capability’, I understand it as a state of quality for being able to stand strong in reaching equilibrium level between uncertainty input with pragmatic output.

  53. nes -  October 23, 2010 - 3:38 pm

    This question has been answered comprehensively by Catholic saints, notably Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Bernard of Clairvox, Saint Bonaventure [The Theology of History]. The secular thinking which blindly ignores the guidance of the Catholic Church just keep circling within its own myopic sphere, insisting that reason and science alone, without the aid of faith and revelation, can eventually resolve everything!
    I recommend you read:
    1) The City of God by Saint Augustine
    2) The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure by Joseph Ratzinger
    3) “A Requirement of Intellectual Honesty”: On Benedict and the German Bishops by James V. Schall
    4) “The Ultimate Meaning of Our Human Existence”: On the Fundamental Question of the Modern Age by James V. Schall

  54. Cyberquill -  October 23, 2010 - 3:07 pm

    I call it positive ineptitude.


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