Keats' Odes and Negative Capability

Characteristics of the Ode

  • a single, unified strain of exalted lyrical verse
  • tends to focus on one purpose and theme
  • its tone and manner is typically elaborate, dignified, and imaginative
  • There are three types of Odes in English:  1) the Pindaric or Regular ode; 2) the Horatian or Homostrophic; and 3) the Irregular. 
  • The Pindaric is characterized by a three strophe pattern of strophe, antistrophe, and epode.  Each new three strophe pattern repeats the meter and rhyme scheme of the first set.
  • The Horatian has only one stanza type. 
  • The Irregular has no consistent stanza pattern.
  • Keats' odes tend to be ten-line stanzas in iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababcdecde.  On the basis of this, one could argue that Keats is broadly Horatian.

The Keats' Concordance -- The Odes


Keats' Theory of Negative Capability

Keats contends:

The excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with beauty & truth [. . .] I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason [. . .] with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

[letter from Keats to his brother George on 21, 27 (?) December 1817]

Keats' theory of "negative capability" is concerned with a particular state of poetic receptivity that makes literary creation possible. According to Al Provinziano, it "concentrates on capturing the intensity of emotion and communicating this feeling via the imagination. This involves a key action: the poet must throw himself into an object in order to obliterate his personal identity. [. . .] The purpose of this is to fuse emotional intensity with the object so that the object becomes symbolic of the emotions." This complete fusion of poet and thing is so intense that all "disagreeables," all associations that are not particularly relevant to the poet’s key insight, are displaced. As a result, the beauty and the truth that are present there are a union of the perceived object and the poet’s emotions. This is especially important to Keats because it removes the need to establish a kind of scientific certainty; instead, the poet (and audience) revel in the mystery, the undefined ambiguities. It represents an openness to experience.
Keats' theory breaks down as the following:
  • Imagination communicates an intense emotion.
  • The poet gives up personal identity to focus on the object being described.
  • As a result, the object becomes symbolic of these intense emotions.
  • And all other matters not important to this emotion are sidelined.
  • The poem's beauty/truth is a combination of poetic emotion and perceived object.
  • These leaves open the enjoyment of mystery because the poem is a subjective truth.

For Keats, then, the urn in "Ode to a Grecian Urn," is an object that speaks truth and beauty, but that truth and beauty are understood by the negative capability of the artist.  The urn's message is one that is finally open-ended and mysterious.