Tuesday, 17 January 2017
John Keats, writing to his brothers in 1817, introduced the term ‘negative capability’ to describe a condition wherein a writer “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. This has always been for me a touchstone, not only for writing but also for living. I have also regarded some of the words of S. T. Coleridge, similarly, as points of departure for my thought. But Keats meant his words as a rejoinder to writers such as the older Coleridge who was distracted from the pursuit of writing as an instinctual activity - as in poems such as ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Christabel’ - by an interest in idealist philosophy and literary theory.
Both of those poems, like those of Keats, are of course worked up into a form, unlike, perhaps, Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ which might be cited as an example of visionary experience untrammelled by any “reaching after fact and reason”. But Coleridge regarded this as an unfinished fragment and had to find an excuse for publishing it many years after it was written. His “abstruser musings” in the realm of literary theory also led to the distinction he made between ‘Fancy’ and ‘Imagination’, the latter being the facility by which we see through those mysteries, which we are are negatively capable of inhabiting, to the process of creation : so the negative becomes a positive and the unconscious capability produces a consciously shaped artefact.
Consider Keats’ ‘Ode to Psyche’. He says in the poem that he “wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly” until he came across Eros and Psyche “In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof / Of leaves ….” and then decided to become Psyche’s priest. This could be taken as a template for the transition from an unconscious state of perception to the conscious decision to follow the impulse to engage in an act of imaginative creation. In a letter of 1819 referring to the composition of this poem, Keats says that “Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius” (the author of the story of Eros and Psyche, written in the 2nd century c.e.). She begins the story as a mortal but is immortalised at the end of it, though too late in history to become established in the Roman pantheon. Keats adds that “I am more orthodox than to let a heathen Goddess be so neglected” and so begins the Ode : “O Goddess hear …”.
‘Psyche’ can mean ‘Mind’, ‘Soul’ or in the terminology of Jungian psychology, ‘Anima’. This is a puzzling range of definitions if we are “reaching after fact and reason”, but in the context of the story, and of the poem, they are wedded in Psyche’s desire to know who is her secret lover, in her embodiment of the yearned for other, and as the object of eros, and so the beloved of Eros. If the gods are experienced in spite of “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” and take form “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, they are imaginatively constructed in our stories about them, as here, by finding them in a mind that already knows them and gives them form.
Coleridge defined the imaginative faculty, “the prime agent of all human perception”, as the power that shapes such stories. Although the emphasis is different, and although Keats had little time for such theorising, his finding a place for Psyche “ In some untrodden region of my mind” is not so far from a realisation of Coleridge’s definition. Keats composed long poems apparently effortlessly. But he died at the age of 26. Coleridge lived to the palindromically older age of 62, in spite of his opium habit, and struggled to compose verse in his later years. Would Keats have continued to write with effortless fluency had he lived longer? Would we think of Coleridge differently if we only had 'The Ancient Mariner', 'Kubla Khan' and the first part of 'Christabel' to go by? Perhaps. But in bringing together Psyche as ‘Mind’ and Psyche as ‘Soul’ he was surely as much her priest as Keats for whom Psyche as 'Soul' was prominently Psyche as ‘Anima’.