several things dovetailed in my mind, & 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.
What does Keats mean by ‘negative capability’? Clearly, he is using the word ‘negative’ not in a pejorative sense, but to convey the idea that a person’s potential can be defined by what he or she does not possess – in this case a need to be clever, a determination to work everything out. Essential to literary achievement, Keats argues, is a certain passivity, a willingness to let what is mysterious or doubtful remain just that. His fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he suggests, would do well to break off from his relentless search for knowledge, and instead contemplate something beautiful and true (‘a fine verisimilitude’) caught, as if by accident, from the most secret part (‘Penetralium’) of mystery. The experience and intuitive appreciation of the beautiful is, indeed, central to poetic talent, and renders irrelevant anything that is arrived at through reason. Keats ends his brief discussion of negative capability by concluding that ‘with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration’.