Negative Capability: The Genius of Keats and Einstein

By David Gosselin

“To develop a complete mind: Study the science of art; Study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

Left image is a photograph of Einstein by Yousuf Karsh. Right image is a painting of the poet John Keats.

In reply to the deeply held popular belief that madness and creativity share a special kinship, this author argues, “They do not, but they may share certain similarities and be confounded as a result.” There has been a tendency in popular culture to dwell on the similarities between creativity and madness, but not the areas where they diverge. Indeed, the differences between the two states of mind have seldom been a conscious object of investigation—despite obvious differences.

In many respects, creative genius and insanity are very dissimilar. They may bear certain similarities in the same way an anxious person may appear happy, a sad person may appear angry or an introverted person may appear shy. Regardless of appearance, their causes are fundamentally different.

Genius is too often treated as some kind of nebulous anomaly—an epiphenomena—which should be appreciated whenever it appears, but rarely understood. The how of genius is seldom discussed as a general way of thinking.

The author believes this is a mistake.

While truly original thinkers are often portrayed as mad men—individuals driven by some higher power which they have no control over and must serve—the fact is that genius has characteristics that any individual may acquire, practice and willfully hone.

But where to start? How should the question of genius be approached? What does genius know?

We can start with a few principles, namely: that everything is a combination of “known” and “unknown.” For instance, everything we view with our eyes is made up of tiny particles. These tiny particles are constantly in motion (for reasons we cannot fully explain) and yet we walk by an endless number of objects and persons which appear at complete rest to our senses. We can interact with these different objects despite not having complete knowledge of how they work. We refer to this collective aggregation of tiny particles as “matter.” However, what we refer to as “matter” expresses itself in many various and seemingly contradictory forms.

Plato identified this fundamental paradox in his Timaeus dialogue. He used the example of fire and explained that we should not refer to fire as “this fire” but rather “thus fire”—fire being only one of the many material expressions of a principle called “matter.” We know or have experienced many expressions of matter; we have seen matter take many different forms, but we have never seen matter per se—it remains an “unknown.” Today, we know that fire is actually a plasma, a state of matter in which particles have been stripped of their electrons, resulting in an ionized gas—fire is a “known-unknown.”

All our experiences—even the most mundane—are a combination of the “known” and “unknown.” The crucial question is: how does genius approach the question of the  “known”, “known-unknown” and “unknown”?

The poet John Keats famously identified a concept which allowed him to define and isolate his own unique quality of “genius.” It was a quality which he saw a great deal of in Shakespeare. Keats called this quality “Negative Capability”:

“at once it struck me 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 a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason[…]”

The reader should be cautioned: Keats’ phrasing of “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” is not the expression of some Modernist or Post-Modernist view; it does not imply that Keats was not concerned about the question of facts and reason in respect to art, as many modern literary critics imagine—quite the contrary. Keats correspondences and poetic works attest to his deep conviction about the nature of the poetic  imagination’s ability to capture Truth. Keats believed that the best way to arrive at facts and reasons was to stop looking for them per se, and allow the mind to explore things on its own, to let the imagination play among phenomena and let the facts and reasons find it, perhaps in the same way we might imagine a poet being found by the muses.

Creative Miracles

In the spring of 1819 Keats experienced one of the greatest bursts of creativity in the history of science and art. Among other works, he composed his five Great Odes which defined a density of idea and irony which had never been achieved before with the English ode. Among the most celebrated odes were his “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

In the “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats describes one of his poetic “visions” in which the beautiful song of a nightingale awakens a deeper awareness within him about the nature of human mortality. However, this awareness of mortality becomes the route which leads Keats to the deeper investigation of a fundamentally different, although related concept: immortality. The acceptance of one’s inevitable mortality becomes the impetus for a deeper investigation into what lies beyond individual mortality. What is left behind? What persists? What is the character of that which persist beyond the bounds of mortality?

As Keats explores the question, his attention is directed away from any notion of particulars—in this case, the nightingale’s song—to the source of music itself—the Platonic “One” which transcends the infinite expressions of the “Many.”

If the nightingale, the musician or the hand that plucked the strings have faded, wherein lies the true source of music?

As Keats explores the question, he arrives at the limitations of the sense-perceptual dimensions of the subject; he directs our attention away from the material towards the immaterial—from the seen to the unseen. So Keats wonders what the nature of his experience was, whether it should be considered a “vision,” a “dream,” or something else:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

         Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

                Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

                        In the next valley-glades:

         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

In the “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats describes an awakening of what is essentially his “negative capability”; he describes ever-increasing levels of awareness which do not merely pertain to the immediate moment being experienced, or even an awareness of all possible moments in time, but rather the nature of that which lies beyond all moments, beyond all time—timelessness.

In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Keats continues to explore the breakthroughs in his “negative capability” by composing what is arguably his greatest poem. Keats opens his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with a flurry of questions provoked by the images painted on the ancient urn, questions about its origins, purpose and its story:

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape

       Of deities or mortals, or of both,

               In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?

       What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?

               What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

The silent scenes on the urn—its “pipes” and “timbrels”—tease out new questions concerning the nature of time and mortality. Keats is increasingly drawn away from the domain of his immediate or direct perceptions of the urn and begins to define one of the most revolutionary poetic investigations into the nature of that which is not directly perceivable but indirectly perceivable—from the domain of the material world to the domain of the immaterial world—from the world of the heard to the world of the unheard—the “spirit” ditties:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

       Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,

       Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:

The images and actions found in the plastic arts of classical Greece move us not because of what we see directly before us as the stillness or silence of the works, but because of what we see indirectly, the unseen motions and unheard melodies provoked by such works. We cannot directly perceive these motions—the sculptures are frozen—but we are made aware of them on account of the sheer irony and metaphorical quality captured by the form imparted to the Grecian marble by the classical sculptor. The unseen motions are the true subject, which in the world of the seen, appear only as glimpses.

Just as the forms embodied by classical Greek sculptures instilled a heightened awareness in Keats, which he described in his sonnet “On First Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” so too have the images on a Grecian urn completely seized his attention. They have seized his attention not by virtue of what he experiences directly before him, but because of the attention that this experience generates in respect to the world existing beyond the urn. The urn is a mere shadow of that world; its images are not the subject, only the predicates for the reality unfolding within Keats’ creative imagination; the urn is merely the seen aspect of an unseen world.

Whether in sculpture, painting, poetry, or any genuine timeless art form, the purpose of great irony and metaphor is to bring our attention to something specific, to make us “aware” of that which lies not only directly before us, but of that which lies indirectly before us, and within us. By provoking an awareness internally, we become capable of perceiving our true subject within the world outside us. Great works of beauty allow us to bridge the gulf between two seemingly disparate worlds; the realization of the awareness which makes us capable of recognizing something new on the outside world compels a consciousness of the reality which must necessarily exist within our own internal world.

We are thus speaking of something specific which exists—an insight—which does not belong to the world of sense, but to the world of ideas. These unseen ideas have just as objective a reality as the world of the seen—only the conditions are different.

What are these conditions?

Rather than having a specific breadth, depth and length, or any sense-perceptual characteristic, an idea has no directly perceivable characteristics. However, just because something has no directly perceivable characteristics, does that mean that something does not have indirectly perceivable characteristics? Is there not a whole series of possible indirectly perceivable characteristics?

In the case of Shakespeare, the actions of a drama are not only the actions on a stage, they are the actions off the stage, the actions in our minds, the questions our minds must consider in order to make sense of the world unfolding upon the stage; the mind must consider the indirectly perceivable questions or intentions which must necessarily translate into the directly perceivable actions on the stage. Without the existence of these indirectly perceivable or directly unperceivable actions, there would be no basis for the directly perceivable actions on the stage. The same goes for the heard notes of a melody, or the seen actions of a sculpture. So Keats declares, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”

Keats is hinting at his real subject by identifying the tension between two fundamentally different worlds.

Several directly unperceivable thought objects are defined in “Ode on a Grecian Urn’s” second stanza. Keats’ poetic approach is no mere literary device: he is compelling our minds to conceive of the non-literal, though as objectively definable thought-objects, or gestalts. It is the ironical juxtaposition of these questions or “thought-objects” that cause us to arrive at Keats’ higher metaphorical meaning—the metaphor of metaphors—the intimate relationship between “Beauty” and “Truth,” mortality and immortality

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave

       Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;

               Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

These moments frozen in time capture the tension between the world of change and the world of the unchanging, the “One” and the “Many.” Keats then increasingly investigates the implications of his observations in relation to his own personal mortality:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

         Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;

And, happy melodist, unwearied,

         For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!

         For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,

                For ever panting, and for ever young;

All breathing human passion far above,

         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,

                A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Keats relishes the seeming suspension of reality captured by the static nature of the urn and explores all of its poetic possibilities. However, these are not freedom-of-associations—Keats is hypothesizing: it is the power and freedom inherent in his choosing to allow his mind to explore the possibilities before him—his “Negative Capability”—without necessarily knowing what they will lead to—which defines the immense creative tension between the past, present, future, and all time—Eternity.

Keats transports us into the domain of what may be aptly called the simultaneity of eternity. This stunning poetic prescience defines the true genius of his “Negative Capability” and its ability to investigate the nature of immaterial ideas, rather than the objects of a material world.

Arguably, the spring of 1819 was for poetry what Einstein’s famous “miracle year” was for science. However, as in the case of Einstein, the last century arguably only began to explore the full wealth of discoveries made possible by Keats’ creative miracles. Moreover, the success of both Keats and Einstein’s method is characterized less by the particular results of their thought-experiments and more by the quality of subject chosen for investigation, and the possibilities opened up by taking on such investigations.

Like many of the ruminations, drawings, inventions and observations found in Da Vinci’s sketchbooks, the works of Keats and Einstein demonstrate an intent which goes far beyond the simple desire of inventing some new formula or practical application for a specific theory; both sought to open up completely new fields of investigation and to generate completely new concepts which could open up completely new worlds for the creative human imagination.

As it relates to poetry, the 1800s did see Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron find success with their own celebrated compositions including, “Ode on Intimations of Immortality”  by William Wordsworth, Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode” and Byron’s numerous love lyrics. However, any comparison of the compositional beauty and rigor of any of these poets or poems would greatly fall short of the density and Shakespearean richness of language and irony found in even the shortest of Keats’ famous Great Odes, the three-stanza “Ode on Melancholy.”

In the “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats implores the reader not to run from the stark realities of human frailty, the pitfalls of desire and the limitations of our mortal coil. He challenges us not to escape through the senses, a quintessential Romantic theme. Instead, he challenges us to bask in all the uncomfortable though absolutely necessary realizations regarding the realities of our mortal existence. Through these realizations, Keats develops the means of cultivating the kind of poetic instinct or insight which he honed to such perfection in just a few short years.

Keats’ willingness to bask in the uncomfortable realities of mortality—realities he perhaps originally had no choice but to accept, in light of the death of his mother and sibling—became the very “glimpses” which allowed him to make it through to the other side of his own mortality. As a result, Keats found himself with an ability to investigate and embrace the kinds of discoveries and questions which only the soul—not the senses—can investigate.

A receptivity—a spiritual awareness of the world—is discovered in the “Ode on Melancholy.” Rather than fading moments or distractions from the otherwise undeniable hardships and tragedies of life, Keats approached sense perceptions as singular glimpses into something more enduring, something beyond direct knowledge or perceptibility, but for which every individual mortal moment serves as a shadow—a finite instance of the infinite. Like Plato, Keats understood time as “a moving image of eternity.” These instances of eternity provided Keats with the opportunity to fathom the reality casting the shadows. It is the joy derived from intimations of that which lies beyond any individual given moment, a heightened awareness of not only the instance of the moment, but the presence of every succeeding moment and every past moment as well. Keats refers to the emotional state associated with this transcendent quality as “melancholy.”

“Ode on Melancholy” offers a unique account of what Keats must have had to accept in order to then proceed to the kinds of breakthroughs and heightened awareness described in his “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” The “Ode on Melancholy” might be considered the investigation of the mortal side of the immortal question, while the “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” might be considered the investigation of the immortal side of the immortal question. On the other hand, other Romantics like Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth might be considered those who in general explored the immortal aspect of the mortal question.

Arguably, an investigation of poetic composition offers us one of the most fecund sources of insight into the nature of creative genius. The insight is often directed inward in the case of poetry, but it can just as easily be directed outwards toward a general investigation of the physical universe and our relationship to that universe. In both the case of art or science, the work is defined by a struggle with the paradoxes of the “unknown,” and the challenge of converting or directing our attention to new “known-unknowns” and “knowns.”

Such is the true function of great poetry, painting and especially music.

Part I: Genius

“It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.

Albert Einstein

Portrait of a Musician by Da Vinci (1452-1519)

All human beings have the capacity to express a quality of “genius” in differing degrees. Everyone is capable of experiencing the kind of emotions and states of mind associated with creative discoveries. It is a state in which the mind finds itself in a freer disposition—a heightened awareness—which is less encumbered by “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” As a result, new ideas find us. Our thoughts become less literal and more musical.

Individuals who have a greater propensity for this quality may be said to possess an “extraordinary” genius. They may often be considered “poets,” but ultimately all genius has an undeniable poetic or musical quality.

The work of the creative genius or poet is the work of giving an idea a formal and material expression—the wedding of spirit with form and matter, as opposed to ideas remaining in an unuttered, unfettered and unspoken state with no clear analog expression in language (whether it be visual, mathematical, poetical or other). An individual who has the potential to conceive of profound ideas, but never develops the ability to express them—an instance perhaps more common than we might think—may be considered tragic, a lost genius or talent gone to waste.

Indeed, it may be argued that having ideas is not the most difficult part; the difficult part is defined by the challenge of giving our unseen or unheard weightless ideas an intelligible and coherent expression under the material conditions of the finite world. It is the task of enfolding something immaterial and infinite within a medium bound by the conditions of a finite world. In a word: it means resolving Plato’s paradox of the “One” and the “Many.” This is what may be rightly referred to as the function of metaphor, originating from the Greek word “metapherein” i.e. to transfer.

The purpose of investigating the question of genius is to make sure no “genius” ever goes to waste, and that even the most unfortunate of circumstances still leaves individuals in a position whereby their extra-ordinary gifts may find the necessary guiding sources and inspiration.

Whether it be through language (poetry and music), visual depictions (painting and sculpture), or scientific expressions (a thought-experiment or formula), the essence of the creative process remains the same. The poet Friedrich Schiller explicitly spoke of the quality of genius in several of his poems including, “The Artists” where precisely this relationship between form and matter becomes the artist’s conscious object of attention—the relationship between matter and mind. Goethe wrote about the relationship between the material and immaterial expressed as “verse.” Edgar Allan Poe also described the paradoxes of matter and mind in his philosophical prose poem “Eureka.” Plato, another poet in the true sense of the term, identified the same process as that of the “Becoming”—the process which bridges the world of the “One” with the world of the “Many.”

Whether it be the interplay between the quality of the discrete and the quality of the continuous expressed by various musical instruments[1] or whether it be the discrete expression of light particles whose collective behavior exhibits the characteristics of a wave, knowledge of the interaction between two kinds of worlds, the seen and unseen, the finite and an infinite—the “One” and the “Many”—lies at the heart of any consequential exploration of the mind and universe. For, a mind which pays only attention to the discrete will often overlook the underlying principles which unite a series of seemingly opposite or contradictory moments or images; a mind overly obsessed with the continuous, unseen or metaphysical workings of the world may overlook or ignore crucial aspects or details in the material world, consequently failing to act on or discover a more nuanced or complex reality.

The interplay between a discrete material expression of things and the indiscrete, continuous and immaterial nature of an idea lies at the heart of the question of the “One” and the “Many.” This has been expressed and known time and time again in the perennial philosophy of the human species. It is an understanding which encompasses the thought of myriad minds, religions, cultures and traditions, each expressed with their own unique subtleties in language, tradition and art. It is a philosophy which never sees matter without spirit, which never considers the seen without the unseen—which never describes an effect without a cause.

What is common to all is the recognition of the combined discrete and continuous nature of all our experiences, the undeniable co-existence of the “known” with the “unknown,” the “One” which unites the “Many”.

The Poetry of Science

As we have said, even the most mundane experiences are a combination of the “known” and unknown.” The recognition of the incommensurability between these two worlds i.e. the inability to measure one with the other, defines a higher kind of knowledge which each individual and the species as a whole may cultivate. Recognition of the existence of such qualitative forms of knowledge allows us to become aware of the inherently scientific quality of poetic thought.

For, we began with the basic principle that everything is a combination of “known” and “unknown,” in which case the “known” is simply a special instance of the “unknown.” We then defined a quality of “negative capability” which allows us to explore and elaborate the relationship and infinite possible expressions of the “known” and “unknown.” The challenge for genius becomes the act of converting “unknowns” into new “known-unknowns” and “knowns.”

In science, Albert Einstein famously imagined what it would be like to stand at the front of a light ray, and then at the back. Would he see the same thing? Would the world appear the same? What does the mind have to do in order to set up that thought experiment? The “unknowns” involved in the experiment become potential “known-unknowns.”

Energy and matter were once believed to be two fundamentally different things existing in a vacuum, but Einstein surmised what would happen to matter once it reached the speed of light? Would it still be “matter” as we had “known” it or would we discover some new boundary condition? Would it remain discrete? What would happen to phenomena once they exceeded the speed of light? Einstein used his imagination to push ideas beyond their assumed meanings or realities—much like the poet does with language. As a result, he discovered new potential meanings and realities.

With his famous formula E=mc2, a new kind of universe was defined in which matter, time and energy became part of the same function, part of the same fabric of the universe, rather than individually discrete phenomena. Indeed, Einstein’s imagination was deeply playful and unafraid of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”; and we can safely say that in such a state of play, with such a musicality of thought, the facts and ideas found him.

But since the advent of the Enlightenment, the notion of the material and immaterial—the discrete and the continuous—spirit and flesh—mind and matter—the “One” and the “Many”—have generally been treated as two fundamentally different universes, demanding two fundamentally distinct approaches, despite their observable co-existence and simultaneity in human beings which have both a physical existence (flesh) and an immaterial existence (mind).

In truth, only the mind can grasp a concept of “known-unknowns” and “unknowns” or reach ever-expanding levels of awareness about the nature and order of things in the universe—the flesh cannot. The mind and soul’s awareness informs our experience of the sensual world. By accepting this reality, we find ourselves neck-deep in the paradoxes of matter and mind, the material and immaterial, the discrete and the continuous—the finite and the infinite.

The Matter of Mind

Poetry understands that the finite is merely a discrete case of the infinite; it understands that the seen is only a shadow of the unseen, and the heard only one instance of the unheard. Individuals who are only capable of thinking in terms of what they can directly or literally perceive will always lack a degree of insight and nuance in respect to the greater workings of the world. They will not only be spiritually blind, but intellectually and creatively blind.

Whether it be the contrast between the continuous nature of notes played on a violin and the discrete nature of notes played on a piano, the wave-like behavior of light particles, or immaterial ideas being given a material expression, human beings are confronted with the paradox of the “Many” as endless variations on the “One”. We might think of the different states of matter or time as akin to the rich variations on a musical theme as found in a Bach fugue or Beethoven symphony: a theme arises, is elaborated in the form of statements, restatements and variations on the statements; the deeper and more richly a theme is explored, the more variations and richness is unfolded—each one a unique expression of the “One.”

The artist uniquely tries to capture this reality through his/her “art” and the scientist through his/her “science.”

I hypothesize that to the degree the denizens of a nation learn to think musically and poetically, that is, to the degree that poetry becomes a friend and mentor to the human race, the mind will increasingly become more adept in navigating the myriad seas of the “unknown”; it will increasingly learn to think musically and less literally—having a greater awareness in regards to the relationship between the objects directly before them and those indirectly before them. An increasing number of the population will find itself in a disposition to explore the “big questions”, and in turn become ready to receive what poet Percy Bysshe Shelley referred to as “Intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature[2]”—a disposition granted to the human race by the proverbial “muses.”

In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley writes:

Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.

The true poet never speaks of the finite divorced from the infinite; he/she never loses sight of the “One” underlying the “Many.” This lies at the heart of what is called poetic or musical insight.

The development of poetic insight or musical insight is essentially the cultivation of an ability to behold the future within the present, to conceive of a “One” which enfolds the “Many.” The great poet sees what has always been there and what will always be there; he/she gives—according to the immutable laws of all time—this eternal presence a unique expression within the context, language, culture, knowledge and confines of his own age. This is called “metaphor.” Through metaphor, the world is able to further elaborate the mysteries of the “unknown” universe as new combinations of the “known-unknown” and “known.”

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s words:

A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation. The creations of sculpture, painting, and music are illustrations still more decisive.

In Defence of Poetry

The task of the great artist or poet is that of capturing that which never changes within the context of that which always changes. To the degree the artist fails at the former, he/she will simply become a product of his/her time, and consequently fade once that time has passed; to the degree the artist fails at the latter, he/she may or may not speak truth, but in either case it will fail to resound within its own age.


In Plato’s Ion dialogue, Socrates discussed the phenomena of poetic inspiration. He tried to ascertain the means by which the poet found this thing called “inspiration”. In so doing, he delivered one of his most beautiful metaphorical descriptions:

Socrates: The gift which you possess of speaking excellently about Homer is not an art, but, as I was just saying, an inspiration; there is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet, but which is commonly known as the stone of Heraclea. This stone not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings; and sometimes you may see a number of pieces of iron and rings suspended from one another so as to form quite a long chain: and all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone. In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.

So Shelley continues in his Defence of Poetry:

The most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry. At such periods there is an accumulation of the power of communicating and receiving intense and impassioned conceptions respecting man and nature. The person in whom this power resides, may often, as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul.

Shelley points out that an individual may often be moved by something within them without having complete knowledge of that which is doing the moving. Only a receiving mind and spirit which has a great “negative capability,” that is, a power to detach itself from its familiar thoughts and surroundings—both in belief and experience—is able to feel the full breadth, depth and length of such inspiration.  

Shelley’s Defence of Poetry—like Plato in his dialogues—is full of metaphorical language which he used to communicate directly unperceivable but indirectly perceivable ideas—ideas which are not made of matter, but of mind, and therefore escape any purely literal description. These are ideas whose precision depends on the poet’s ability to use and develop a quality of thought which is non-literal, not simple, but nuanced and metaphorical in such a way that he/she is able to precisely point to that which lies between any series of images or note, something which cannot be simply addressed directly, only indirectly. For, literal language is derived from knowledge of that which we can directly touch, taste, hear, see or smell. However, ideas have no such characteristics; they have no length, breadth and depth. A different kind of language is necessary to point to them.

The question becomes: what kind of language is necessary to describe them?

Despite the elusiveness of ideas in relationship to our senses, the existence of ideas is undeniable—they are those things which force the mind to consider not only the material, but the immaterial dimension of things in the universe. However, ideas remain elusive to the extent we lack the forms and metaphors necessary to distill them into new original and intelligible forms. Just as the tiny particles which make up matter cannot be directly seen by the naked eye, so too can the characteristics and dimensions of an idea not be known in literal terms of the flesh—only through the mind. Indeed, the search for an appropriate language and lexicon is arguably more elusive than the phenomena itself. Moreover, because of a historical overreliance on the five senses and literal communication, these questions often escape any familiar or traditional or common linguistic forms. However, these forms—metaphorical forms—abound in poetry, music and the arts generally.

This is the chief role of the poet, to elaborate and define the kinds of linguistic forms, metaphors and ironies which allow us to capture with precision the intelligible, though directly unperceivable and unspoken world of ideas. Through the use of nuanced non-literal forms of thinking, the poet’s language becomes increasingly metaphorical; the object of his/her attention increasingly shifts from the world’s material dimensions to the world’s immaterial dimensions.

While the earlier examples of Keats’ odes exemplify a quality of poetic genius in one of its most advanced and complex expressions, the same quality of poetic genius can be found in even the simplest of language, using even the simplest of images. For, the quality of poetic insight lies not in language per se, but in the thoughts, which the language shadows. The complexity of language is defined by the complexity of idea, rather than the other way around. To the degree that overly complex language is used to describe a simple idea, the poetry will read as turgid, overwrought, contrived; to the degree that a complex poetical idea is rendered in inadequate and simple language, the poetry will have an air of clumsiness, vagueness, imprecision and lack of harmony.

Take the simple yet beautifully ironic example of a poem like Heinrich Heine’s “Fisher Girl.”

How does Heine push the boundaries of a poetic idea in the same way a scientist might push and explore the boundaries between the “known” and “unknown” in a scientific thought-experiment? What happens when the poet experiments and pushes words and images beyond their literal or assumed meanings into new “unknown” and non-literal worlds or combination of meaning?

Let us look at one of Heine’s poems “The Fisher Girl.”

The Fisher Girl

Come you lovely fisher girl,

Come and bring your boat to land;

Join me on the golden shore,

We’ll cuddle hand in hand.

Lay your head on my breast

And let all your fears set sail,

You’ve trusted the deep sea

So often with you fate.

My heart is like the sea,

Has storm and ebb and flow

And many lovely pearls

Lie in the depths below.

Translation © David B. Gosselin

How can a heart be like the sea? What does this mean? What kind of sea are we talking about? What kind of heart are we talking about?

Heine plays with the boundaries of meaning and language and explores new relationships between “known” and “unknown” meanings—the poet plays with and explores these meanings, creating new ideas, thought-constellations or constellations of meaning—a new “One” is wrought out of a “Many”. Keats defined the artist’s ability to play and explore meaning in such a fashion as “negative capability.”

Paradoxes between seemingly illogical comparisons force the mind to generate new ideas which can explain the apparent discrepancies in literal meaning. We are pushed out of the literal domain and into a higher metaphorical domain.

The seemingly simple language of Heine’s “Fisher Girl” generates a nuanced notion of love. It is a love which involves risks, sacrifice and treasure. Love becomes a choice, one that cannot guarantee our safety or certainty, but which bears with it the possibility of something that we are guaranteed never to know if we don’t take the chance. Love becomes something of a treasure expedition on the high seas.

To the degree that a discerning mind is free to explore the richness and nuance of an idea, they will become increasingly free from the literal world of their direct experience and find themselves in a greater and freer disposition to apprehend Truth in its more enduring form, just as a Keats, Heine and Einstein did. Their thoughts will become less literal and more musical.

Musical Thinking

Kepler’s Nested Platonic Solids from his Mysterium Cosmographicum (1594) which showcased the early phase of Kepler’s discovery of the harmonic ordering of the planetary orbits around the Sun which later became dubbed his 3rd Law.

The essence of classical music lies in the development and exploration of a musical theme: a theme is stated, transformed, inverted and counterpointed. For example, the sonata form is based on the idea of making a musical statement, a counter musical statement, followed by a restatement of the whole. Whether it is an essay, a musical composition, a poetic composition, a painting or a scientific thought-experiment, what is termed the “sonata” form is simply musical verbiage describing a process that exists universally in all fields of creative expression.

In the same way a series of notes define a musical phrase or theme which can be explored for all its richness and meaning in musical language, so too may a word, phrase or a series of images be explored for all of its nuance and richness in poetic language. And in the same way, a scientific hypothesis may be explored in all its possibilities and dimensions in relation to the physical universe.

In the same way Einstein explored the many possible states of matter and energy in the universe, Keats explored the many implications of timeless art and their significance in relation to both human mortality and immortality. Keats wondered what insights, what wisdom, what reality the timeless urn foreshadowed.

The musicality of a poem is an integral part of its idea. In the case of Percy Shelley’s “Music when soft voices die,” we find an example of a poem which not only demonstrates the inherent musicality of thought found in poetry, the poem’s subject is music itself. In this eight line poem, the poet develops an exquisite irony about the nature of thought, love and the nature of the human mind using the metaphor of music:

Music, when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory—

Odours, when sweet violets sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Rose leaves, when the rose is dead,

Are heaped for the belovèd’s bed;

And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone,

Love itself shall slumber on.

The voice of the departed rings like music—it feels like music. Even when the beloved is gone, the thoughts of love remain. These thoughts are no less real than are the phrases of music impressed onto our minds, which continue to be heard even after their sound has fled.

How is this possible? How is the music heard?

One can argue that the memory of music is simply that, a memory, but what is a memory truly? Are we simply recalling a series of notes, or is that series of notes just the means of re-creating a moment—a discovery—which the mind may re-create at will by performing the same musical leaps it had to originally perform when hearing the melody for the first time?

Shelley is trying to draw our minds to something more substantial than the recollection of images as mere literal images, the beloved as a merely mortal thing; the substantive nature of thought itself is explored. In this case, they are thoughts of love, but this is only the first stanza!

What good are thoughts for human beings?

In the second stanza, the effect of music, memory—the thought of a beloved—on the mind itself is made the conscious object of attention, “And so thy thoughts, when thou art gone, Love itself shall slumber on.” Shall Love slumber on the thought of our beloved, or shall Love continue to sleep gently, at ease, knowing that Love is as true regardless of whether the beloved is near the poet or not?

Do thoughts really lose any of their meaning if the physical object of our love is gone, or are thoughts a more substantive part of the universe (and ourselves) than the senses lead us to believe? Thoughts and memories may be considered ephemeral things, but they are less ephemeral—less fleeting—and relatively indestructible in comparison to any single or collective experience. Thoughts are defined as something more real than what we can touch, taste, hear, see or smell because they exist in the mind—something immaterial—and are therefore not subject to the same boundaries as things in the material world.

What Universe Are We In?

Different poems present different universes per se, different hypotheses about the nature of mind, man and the universe. In this sense, poetic thinking is inherently experimental and scientific, and spiritual. Poetry examines the spiritual dimensions of an idea, what a given universe implies as a reality of spirit and sentiment. In a word: the poet paints for us a painting or series of snapshots of his/her universe and explores the possibilities inherent in that universe.

The universe explored in a poem is rarely a complete universe, it is a universe captured in paradoxes and ironies. The relative success and meaning of a poem may arguably be defined by the relative scope of the universe captured. How much of a universe does the poet paint? What is the nature of this universe as it relates to the nature of thought and human beings?

In essence, poetry functions in a manner very similar to that of a scientific thought-experiment. Asking how much of the universe a poem reveals is much like asking how much of the universe a scientific thought-experiment reveals. In the same way a thought-experiment may introduce new dimensions into our notion of the physical universe, poetry may introduce new dimensions and boundaries into the world of ideas; words, images and thoughts are pushed beyond their literal or assumed definitions. Out of this process new metaphors are wrought, new concepts and ideas are born which allow us to act in the universe with a greater consciousness of our own nature and that of the universe. Moreover, whether in science or in art, the poet’s thinking is most often revealed by virtue of the approach taken in the treatment a given idea; the form and approach selected to render an artistic idea reveals as much (or even more) about how an artist thinks than what he/she expresses literally; it gives us an indication of what the poet believes to be the nature of the object being investigated by virtue of the manner he/she believes most adequate for treating the particular subject. The words and images the poet uses will always be subject to interpretation and relative in meaning, but the chosen treatment of a theme indicates to a reader the kind of a universe the poet believes they are treating.

Whether we are speaking of a scientific thought-experiment or a poem, both are defined by an essentially poetic idea—a thought object. The significance and “realness” of the thought object can be defined by the quality of breakthrough or change engendered by this new thought-object in relation to the “known” and “unknown” universe.

That thought objects are real is undeniable; the only thing at issue is the method by which we may approach and discuss them.

Part II: The “One” and the “Many”

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”

– Albert Einstein

The existence of inspirational forces animating the artist or scientist is undeniable, but the necessary concepts, metaphorical language and approach needed to adequately treat these undeniable phenomena are arguably more elusive than the phenomena itself. Indeed, the adequate use of language and the appropriate philosophical concepts required for treating the question represent some of the chief obstacles to a fuller and greater cultivation of universal creativity across all strata in society. In this respect, the idea of “form,” as in Platonic “forms”—a notion of the “One” which bounds the “Many” impressions of our sense-experience, is essential. The denial or acceptance of the co-existence of the “One” and the “Many” lies at the heart of virtually every philosophical debate and every aesthetic judgement. How are the “One” and the “Many” reconciled?

How can light be composed of individual particles, and yet collectively act like a wave? How can a single movement in classical sculpture convey an entire story?

How can our level of awareness about the present shed light on both the past and future?

The key to such questions has sometimes been referred to as “artistic insight” or “poetic insight.” It involves a prescience of something beyond the mere parts or particulars of a given experience. In this respect, poetic and scientific insights are one and the same; the only difference lies in the object of investigation.

The great sculptors of ancient Greece were able to unfold the action and drama of an entire story or myth in a single moment. They were able to capture what required many words and much time in a single moment of change. Compared to the relatively static nature of sculptures that came before and after the classical Greek period, the ancient Greeks had an infinitely greater story-telling capability, an infinitely greater wisdom into the nature of the ever-changing universe and an infinitely greater ability to render the infinite manifestations of the “Many” as an expression of the “One”.

Laocoön and his sons, also known as the Laocoön Group. Marble, copy after a Hellenistic original from ca. 200 BCE. Found in the Baths of Trajan, 1506.Vatican Museums, Vatican.
Winged Victory of Samothrace, 3rd or 2nd Century BCE, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.

The same kind of talent could later be found in the works of Da Vinci and other Renaissance masters. In these works, an astonishingly life-like and living quality is imparted to ostensibly lifeless images.

The question becomes: what set classical Greek sculpture and its Renaissance heirs apart from the vast majority of both their past and future counterparts. What gave these works of art their essence and living quality?

While we do not have many recorded accounts of the thinking and philosophy underlying the approach of the ancient Greek sculptors and poets, Leonardo Da Vinci did leave behind a wealth of sketch books and philosophical ruminations which offer today’s readers many insights into the mind of genius in motion.

As painter and art critic/historian Karel Vereycken describes in his article, “Da Vinci: Painter of Motion,” one of Da Vinci’s central goals as a painter was that of “making visible the invisible”. Da Vinci defined several categories of “immaterial movements” including, “temporal” (involving the movement of time), “the movement of images through light” by “sound and odor,” the movement of “spirit” and the movement which animates “the life of things.”

Just as Keats was interested in “unheard melodies”, Da Vinci was interested in the invisible movement of things, the visible being merely one special case of the invisible. In reality, the question for a true scientist or artist is not whether these immaterial movements and ideas exist or not, but how to best capture and express them? How does the sculptor convey motion through the frozen forms of sculpture; how does a poet capture his/her thoughts through images?

One’s ability to capture such motions depends on the artist’s awareness and understanding regarding the nature of the motions he/she seeks to capture and the quality of change associated with these motions. For, in a great work of sculpture or classical painting, the subject is not some simple linear idea of motion, but rather it is the characteristic quality of change associated with different categories of action. That there exists not only linear motion, but fundamentally different qualities of action in the universe lies at the heart of an understanding of the classical Greeks and their Italian Renaissance heirs.

The immortal artist asks: how can the finite be presented as simply a special case of the infinite? How can the present be portrayed as merely one instance of eternity? How can the “One” be discovered among the endless unfolding of the “Many”? In answer to this ontological paradox, Plato coined the term “Becoming,” the concept which bridges the world of the “One” with the world of the “Many.” Through an understanding of the “Becoming”, one is able to contemplate the process of change by which the unfolding of the “Many” is understood as the unique unfolding of the enfolded “One.”

The great artist directs the viewer’s attention from what is there to what is not there; he/she presents the instance of the “known” as simply one of the infinite reflections of the “unknown.” Indeed, the quality of insight derived from great art is best described as a new heightened awareness of something that has been there all along, an awareness of something which is always there. The task of the artist is to make us “aware” of that through irony and metaphor, the essence of that which lies between a series of images, or between a series of notes. In this light, the scientist may also be considered a special kind of artist, one who makes us aware of things in the universe, things which had always been there, but escaped our attention until the moment of discovery.

Take for example Da Vinci’s portrait of a Musician. We are presented with the view of a composer. It is not a direct view, but an indirect view. The composer is holding a small piece of paper, but what is written on this small piece of paper? We notice a series of musical notations scratched onto the piece of paper. What does Da Vinci really want us to see?

Portrait of a Musician by Da Vinci

The question becomes: what is the true subject of Da Vinci’s portrayal of the artist? Are we merely meant to contemplate the literal notes scratched onto a piece of a paper, or is there something more to consider?

As Da Vinci attests in both his works in art and science, he was concerned with the immaterial movement of things—the forces that set things into motion—and the principles which cause life to take its myriad shapes and forms throughout the universe.

Perhaps, Da Vinci would ask “From where do the notes originate?” Is the source of the music really a tiny piece of paper? What is their true origin?

Da Vinci is able to direct the observer’s attention away from the literal notes scratched onto a piece of a paper and steer it towards the true source of the music: the mind of the composer. To truly understand the music, one must understand the composer’s mind. While the instruments give the music its sound, the mind gives the music its form. The notes are merely the shadows and footsteps left by the mind.

The Modern Mind

by Mark Rothko

As we stated earlier, the work of the creative genius or poet is the work of giving an idea a formal and material expression—the wedding of spirit with form and matter, as opposed to ideas remaining in an incomplete, unuttered, unfettered and unspoken state without a clear analog expression in language (whether it be visual, mathematical, poetical or other). Since the time of classical Greece, the Golden Renaissance and before, the struggle of the artist has been the challenge of finding new successful ways of expressing the “inexpressible,” of combing form and matter, the “One” with the “Many.”

In his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Shelley described his use of imagery as a reflection of “the operations of the human mind”:

The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power…

Instead of the “operations of the human mind” as expressed through the creation of new metaphors and irony, T.S. Eliot—a leading proponent of Modernist poetry—defined his conception of an “objective correlative.” Images were not treated as the metaphorical shadows cast by “the operations of the human mind,”—as they were for Shakespeare, Dante, Keats or Shelley— imagery simply became a means for generating subjective impressions and literary effects.

As the poet and critic Adam Sedia writes in his penetrating essay “Eliot’s Masks,” T.S. Eliot himself said so much about his own work:

Eliot the poet consciously structured his poems to convey only an image or impression, and one that would vary according to each reader. In addressing how to interpret his own works, Eliot the critic wrote, “I am no better qualified to say No! [to any interpretation] than is any other reader.”  

With the advent of Modernism, the world saw a rapid and sudden departure from an understanding of harmony as the expression of the timeless relationship between the “One” and the “Many, the finite and the infinite, the seen and the unseen. A movement of “art for art’s sake” quickly took shape and created a gulf between the artist’s chosen form of expression/representation of a specific idea and the ability of an audience to understand and therefore gain some sort of insight into the nature of the artist’s chosen subject.

In the case of most modern or twentieth century art forms (with some exceptions, of course), artistic expression was either confined within the domain of the “known” or the domain of the “unknown.” However, it rarely succeeded in uniting the two. Art became increasingly bound by one’s subjective experience of the literal, the literal as expressed in ever-more “abstract”, “concrete” or “cubist” forms. Rather than images serving as the shadows of thoughts and having a metaphorical function, “art for art’s sake” meant there was no need for metaphor and irony.

Whereas the essence of metaphor is its intelligibility, the essence of Modernism—typified by Eliot’s “objective correlative”—is subjectivity. Indeed, the majority of Modernist artists were not really concerned with whether an audience had the ability to find meaning in their work—as Eliot himself attested and as the approach of the leading Modernists demonstrates—the audience was left to experience whatever subjective impressions they might encounter and find their own meaning, regardless of the poet’s intentions (whether one existed or not).

by E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)
Sacred Emily by Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

In one extreme of modern abstract art, the world of the “unknown” was largely presented without the “known,” while in the other extreme the “known” was presented as something without the “unknown.” In the case of the former, we might imagine Gertrude Stein’s cubist verses, E.E. Cummings’ “concrete” poems or the paintings of Mark Rothko and John Pollock; in the case of the latter, we might consider T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of Alfred Prufrock” or Yeats’ many occult poems.

Said otherwise, the “One” was either presented without the “Many”—at which point it remained largely beyond the reach of the intellect and therefore completely subjective—or the “Many” was presented without the “One”, in which case there was essentially only subjective impressions generated by a direct experience of literal words or images, with little idea of what these familiar images or forms might represent

Modernism and its offspring included a various host of diverse talents which demonstrated their own level of artistic insight and technical knowledge in respect to their craft, but regardless of medium, Modernist craftsman rarely succeeded in bridging the world of the “known” with the “unknown,” the “One” with the “Many.” This defines the essential difference between Modernist art and the classical tradition of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare or the classical tradition as it can be found in cultures as diverse as the ancient Vedas, the classical oriental verse of China and Japan, the poetry of Eastern Sufi mystics or classical Arabic.

To the degree that art became more abstract in the twentieth century, Modern abstract art might be best described as an abstraction of the literal, rather than the abstraction of an idea.

Regardless of whether the “One” was united with the “Many,” or the “Many” with the “One,” a modern work was said to be creative on account of its novelty and subjectivity. Hence, Ezra Pound’s famous injunction: make it new. A new technique or novel word choice could be considered creativity. Rather than the rigorous development of a theme or idea, novelty became the main driver for modern art. The idea of “meaning” or significance in relationship to human nature or the universe became secondary, tertiary, or simply irrelevant.

The idea of meaning as it had been traditionally known in both western and eastern traditions of classical culture was largely eschewed (with some exceptions) in favor of novelty and subjectivity. From the Modernist standpoint, any attempt to capture truth in art was perceived as the “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” While Keats and poets in the classical tradition believed art’s purpose was the apprehension of higher truths—the truths that could transcend the particular facts and reason of a given place and time and the linguistic conventions or grammatical structures of a people—the modernist eschewed the need for any truth. Literary or artistic effect became the primary goal.

As John Carey so brilliantly describes in his book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939:

We cannot tell what happens in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The shapes are blurred.

Who are the “you” and “I” at the poem’s start (“Let us go, then, you and I”)? Are the Prufock’s

two selves? And which two selves? Is he looking at his reflection in a mirror before going out?

Does he ever get to the room where the mysterious women come and go, talking of Michelangelo?

These famous unanswerable questions about the poem have generated so much debate only

because they have been mistaken for answerable questions, which is like supposing that a Monet is

really a Canaletto that has been accidently smudged. The questions are unanswerable because the

poem designedly withholds the information needed to answer them. It withdraws itself into

indefiniteness, eluding the fact-hungry masses. The fact that we cannot be sure what it is about is

essential to what it is about. Its syntax is veiled. For example:

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo

“In” is odd with “come and go”. You would expect people to come and go to and from a room.

What is meant by coming and going in is not clear, and cannot, of course, be clarified. The poetic

enterprise is successfully evasive, embodying Prufrock’s evasiveness. Instead of facts, it offers a

phantom meaning which dissolves when the reader tries to isolate it.

There exists a wide range of examples in not only Eliot, but the vast majority of Modern art, whether poetry, sculpture, painting etc… Different Modernists sought to achieve such goals in their own original way, but what is common is the existence of “phantom meanings” and an “evasiveness” in regards to any discernable meaning, something proudly paraded as a hallmark of erudition and sophistication in the “avant-garde” class. However, the question should be asked: if human beings are not to find truth and meaning in art, where are they to find it?

As the scholar John Carey stated very clearly in his ground-breaking study on Modernism, Modernists like T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats et al never meant for their work to be understood by what they perceived as “the masses.” Many of Eliot’s best-known poems were free-associative rather than metaphorical; their imagery was wrought out of highly stylized and descriptive language with much attention paid to the choice of language even while its purpose remained excessively vague and inscrutable, essentially leaving the audience to make up its own meaning.

The great irony lies in the fact that while Modernists and Formalists often prided themselves on “precision” in language—a careful attention to language and word-choice—this precision applied more to language itself, rather than to ideas as such. In a word: the highly stylized nature of much Modernist poetry and the virtuosity of its language contributed nothing to its understanding. In many cases, language was itself idolized instead of being treated as a reflection of “the operations of the human mind.” Readers were often left struggling with an understanding of the Modernist’s use of language as such, rather than trying to wrestle with any of the concepts conveyed by the language.

From these observations one can discern that the approach of leading Modernist poets suggested a completely different kind of universe. What was the nature of this modern universe? What universe did Eliot believe he inhabited? What universe was inhabited by Shaw or Yeats?

We leave that question up to diligent readers.

What Is a Classic?

While classical art communicates a definite meaning indirectly, through metaphor and irony, Modern art can be characterized as a general avoidance of meaning, a universe without meaning, and the infinite “phantom meanings” that may be conjured up as a result. This lack of meaning has often been mistakenly perceived as depth, but as both critics John Carey and Adam Sedia demonstrated very powerfully in their critical research, this perceived depth was only that, a perception.

So T.S. Eliot fashioned his cubist portraits of the Modern world such as the “Waste Land,” poetic pastiches peppered with historical, cultural and social commentaries in the form of free-associations; Mark Rothco used different shades and hues of color and different lines sizes to present different depictions of a literal space; Gertrude Stein declared “A rose is a rose is a rose”; and Yeats mystified his audience with occult symbolism and imagery, dazzling his audience with that which they did not have the means to understand (that is, unless they too were steeped in the language of the occult).

The Muses

For the classical Greeks, Shakespeare, Dante and their poetic heirs, poetry was not something crafted of the poet’s own free will so much as it was something which already existed, something comprised within human nature itself—something eternal—which the poet was tasked with rendering into language through metaphor and irony. Thus, the poet used metaphor as a means of garbing the world of the immutable and unchanging with the familiar images and garbs of the ephemeral world. The classical mind understood that there was nothing so new, which was not already present as a potential idea within the human species.

Modernists like Eliot and Auden sought to impress some effect on their audience with novel displays of technical prowess; Yeats sought to mystify his audience with obscure, occult or symbolic references. On the other hand, classical poets like Keats and Shelley sought to provoke something already existing deep within human beings, to awaken and rouse this quality within the reader. It is a quality of awareness, which when made fully conscious, allows individuals to become more conscious actors, more sovereign creative individuals with a greater ability to marshal their own creative powers.

To keep viewers in a purely subjective and sensual realm, regardless of how abstract the case might be, to simply seek to generate impressions which keep the viewer confined to the literal and to fail in the challenge of giving the inexpressible some intelligible form which leads to some definite thought-object became the hallmark of the Modernists and Post-Modernists. Modernists made a witting or unwitting decision not to make their thought-objects intelligible, in large part only leaving the sensual effects of art and its technical implications for the reader to analyze.

For the Modernist, avoiding the “irritable reaching after fact and reason” did not mean placing oneself in a position where a higher truth could find them—a truth which in Shelley words individuals are compelled to serve—“that power which is seated on the throne of their own soul”—for the Modernist, there was no truth other than one’s own subjective experience, or perhaps, more precisely: subjective experience was considered the primary basis of one’s existence, rather than the apprehension of truth. This was not merely an artistic or aesthetic principle, but a world view.

For the Modernist (with some exceptions of course), the mind was essentially a tabula rasa. There was nothing to unearth, only external experiences which could be curated and made into verse. To this we may attribute the characteristic prose-like quality of much Modernist verse—its peculiar lack of music.

More than anything, the timeless quality of the sculpture that emerged in classical Greece, and which re-emerged in with a revival of the Greek ideal in the Italian Golden Renaissance was largely due to the capacity these works had to awaken something immutable within us, to capture the immaterial movements characteristic of human creativity, and to give these movements a material expression.

Hermes and the Infant Dionysos, 4th Century BCE, Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Greece.

With the advent of the Enlightenment, the classical arts were dealt a devastating blow.  The Enlightenment created a great gulf between knowledge of the finite and knowledge of the infinite, between the seen and the unseen, the “known” and the “unknown.” By enlightenment standards, only that which could be observed empirically was considered a known “fact”; the search for truth was in essence reduced to the “irritable reaching after fact and reason,” and nothing more could be considered a legitimate form of truth based on these “objective” standards. As a result, thinking became increasingly less musical, tending either towards the excessively subjective or the excessively literal.

Under the intellectual conditions of the Enlightenment, it became impossible to discuss spirituality, other than in occult or gnostic forms, and it also became impossible to discuss ideas of the Beautiful or the True. All such conceptions became relegated to the obscure department of “metaphysics.” In a word: only that which we could touch, taste, hear, see or smell was knowable i.e. only that which was directly perceivable could be discussed in an objectively intelligible fashion; things which were indirectly perceivable were considered categorically unknowable.

Under these intellectual conditions, Art, Truth, and Beauty sunk into an abyss of existentialism, nihilism, pessimism and obscurity.

The great irony of the Enlightenment is of course that sensations and sense-perceptions vary widely among people. Two people may see the color red, but still not register the exact same hue. Seemingly obvious things in the sense-perceptual world are not so obvious upon further analysis; everyone sees and tastes and hears and feels things differently. However, basic “objective” observations such as “there are three oranges on a table, and everyone agrees that they see three oranges” define such a shallow conception of truth and reality that we would arguably all be better off without self-conscious creative faculties, were these the only sure kinds of experience that our minds could pursue.

Part III: The Inner Voice

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter

John Keats

St. Matthew and The Angel by Rembrandt (1661)

Most people will be familiar with the idea of an inner voice. We all have an inner voice that looks out for us, feels what we feel, and often knows what to do even when we seemingly don’t.

Everyone has had the experience of not listening to their inner voice: we were left stunned when we experienced the outcome which confirmed the wisdom of our inner voice. It can also be said that those who find their inner voice misleading may themselves have an issue which can be best identified by targeting the area in which their inner voice seems to fail them most often. Thus, even the investigation of the failure of one’s inner voice—the paradox of one’s inner voice as in the paradoxes of a poem—can lead to profound truths about the nature of our minds, the nature of the human species and the universe generally.

The kind of thoughts generated by our inner voice may be called “insight”; they may be considered artistic or scientific insight, or even psychological insights, but it is a “sight” beyond what we can directly see per se. The only essential difference distinguishing one kind of insight from another lies in the object of investigation—the process of investigation remains essentially the same.

The Inner Music

The idea of “negative capability” is simply the idea that we are willing to walk in the shoes of different ideas, to walk down different roads, regardless of our own convictions, and merely as thought-experiments—as if we were following our “muse.” “Negative capability” only asks that we be open to new hypotheses.

When we read a great poem or encounter a new idea, we should ask ourselves, what universe are we in? What universe is the poet or scientist in? All great story-telling and poetry is essentially the art of entertaining different hypotheses or outcomes, and exploring the potential value or interest of various outcomes. And that is the essence of a thought-experiment, of poetic or imaginative play. The more a scientist or poet learns to play, the more compelling and insightful their thought-experiments may become.

And truly, we can remark that a baby at play is perhaps one of the purest examples of “negative capability.” A baby or young child stacking blocks is simply concerned with play: they are not concerned with finding final answers so much as they are interested in the exploration of potential possibilities and outcomes; they are learning without preconceived notions—they are experimenting. As a result, their thoughts can be wildly imaginative and playful, and poetic. However, babies stacking blocks do not have the same level of brain development and intellectual capacities as adults, but it is this innate, pure and essential function of child-like play that must be cultivated and brought to maturity in each generation such that each human individual increasingly gains the ability to marshal and fully master his/her own unique creative faculties.

Baby at Play by Thomas Eakins (1876)

A man or woman with a high “negative capability” is almost guaranteed great insights and life lessons, regardless of their beliefs, religious creed or assumptions about the universe. Shakespeare wrote a dizzying number of sublime plays; 1819 became John Keats’ year of poetic miracles; Da Vinci harnessed his negative capability on a daily basis and seemed to conquer every field of thought he entered; as did Gottfried Leibniz; and Einstein famously experienced his “miracle year” as the result of his many scientific thought-experiments conducted within his musical imagination.

“Negative capability” is creativity; it lies at the heart of the scientist and artists’ powers of insight. The cultivation of such a power merely requires a willingness on the part of a thinker to think what he/she does not or has not yet thought, and thinking such things without believing that they have to believe what they imagine as a result.

Such was the capability of a “Man of Achievement,” according to John Keats and his analysis of Shakespeare’s talent. Shakespeare was able to conceive of myriad possibilities, and as a result, he was able to discover myriad new insights into the nuanced nature of human knowledge and experience—the infinite possibilities in thought and action which make up the drama of humankind.

When embarking on a thought-experiment, we must relinquish our fear of thinking; we must be ready to abandon all assumptions and see what we may discover without holding onto even our most cherished convictions. Can we creatively and continuously re-discover our own deepest convictions? If our beliefs are rooted in Truth, then we should be able to re-discover them anew on the many creative routes found in our new thought-experiments.

Who among us would not wish to have the story-telling capabilities of a Shakespeare or the thought-experiment capabilities of an Einstein aiding us in our daily lives and work, whether it involves the formulation of a scientific hypothesis, the communication of an idea to an audience, or the crafting of new beautiful poetry?

This is the essence of the quality Keats saw in individuals with a high “negative capability.” The purpose of the exercise is to see if we can find any nuance hidden among reality; if we can make any distinctions between our pre-determined ideas as we perceive them and their reality once “acted out” on the stage of our minds. In a word: we do not have to know how a story ends before beginning the journey—we may simply imagine ourselves awaking in the midst of great drama, facing some great paradox or question and wondering, “What might happen, what could happen, or what should happen?”

David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse poetry website, which is dedicated to publishing and promoting 21st-century classical poetry. In 2020, David founded the New Lyre magazine as a bi-annual poetry and philosophy journal.


[1] Compare the discreteness of notes played on piano in relationship to the continuous action of a bow over the strings of a violin or cello.

[2] In Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley


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