Two Cat Burglar Poems Compared: Copus and Crucefix

Here are two poems about climbing in through windows. I’m sure it’s ill-advised to pit something of one’s own against one of the best poems appearing in the Forward Poems of the Decade anthology, but the similarities were so interesting that I decided to lay good sense aside. I hoped also to put aside any spirit of competition and to further that you will find that I have adopted a very impersonal tone towards my own poem. That poem – ’17 Britannia Square’ – was first published in 2004 and it certainly feels remote from me now, as if written by someone else. The following essay zig-zags to compare the two poems as students are asked to do in the Edexcel A level examination (9ETO/03). The text of Julia Copus’s poem can be found here. My poem can be read by scrolling down the page on this link.


Both poems convey details of the climb into a house which, in each case, is taken to represent something about the progression of individual lives, about developing identity. Copus’s climbing girl is on the brink of womanhood, a journey into “the way of the world” and her poem implies the difficulties ahead, especially, perhaps, for a woman in a patriarchal world. Crucefix’s poem is altogether more male and concentrates more on what has come to divide the two men, the surprising shift (“strangeness”) in identity over time. The forms of the two poems are similar: continuous blocks of unrhymed verse, though Copus uses a more variable line length and flowing syntax that evokes the ‘ease’ of the girl’s passage. In contrast, Crucefix’s verse halts and re-starts on several occasions, suggestive of the disjunction between his two characters.

Julia Copus’s 13 year old girl is repeatedly imaged in border territory, a “halfway” stage, a liminal state of age, sexuality, friendship and her literal broaching/breaching of “the warm flank of the house”. The journey or passage she is taking is into adulthood, a transition presented as exciting, anxious and relatively “easy”, though what awaits her is more uncertain and even forbidding. The opening descriptions emphasise her vulnerability (crouched, trembling, narrow windowsill, sharp drop). Yet she continues to find reassurance in the presence of her (similarly aged) friend, though this is precisely what she is climbing away from. For further reassurance, she dwells on the tangible details of the moment: “the fact of the open window, / the flimsy, hole-punched, aluminium lever”. Crucefix’s ‘17 Britannia Square’ also opens with a concern to keep things “steady” but here it foreshadows the narrator’s growing awareness of changes in personal identity and relationships. The details and onomatopoeia of line 3, quickly settle us into a concrete situation, but the simile of the “coins being scraped together” is the first indication of one of the poem’s divisive elements, material wealth. Given her age, Copus’s girl was not trusted with the keys; Crucefix’s narrator readily accepts responsibility for the lock out (he forgot to pick up the keys) and self-deprecatingly confesses his own inadequacy which is again linked to the material successes of his friend: “I could not manage ten minutes / in charge of your tall, Edwardian house”.


Copus’s girl’s physical position, perched perilously on the porch roof with its rough asphalt like “a square of petrified beach” is marvellously conveyed. The word “petrified” works physically and psychologically, evoking both stoniness and felt fear simultaneously, but it also foreshadows her eventual dive through the window, mermaid-like, into the ambiguous ocean of her future. The omniscient narrative voice asks, “What can she know / of the way the world admits us less and less / the more we grow?” The narrative voice knows the future as the girl does not and the personal pronoun (“us”) probably implies the voice is female and is making a comment on the patriarchal nature of the world of adulthood into which the girl is moving. It is a world that will “admit” her less and less. The choice of the word “admit” suggests the future will acknowledge the girl’s existence less as well as give her less literal admission to what it might offer. By contrast, watching his friend climb the ladder, it is the past that preoccupies Crucefix’s narrator. It’s interesting that the “cat-burgling high-jinks” are already distanced by being something they “might” have done, though it seems likely they did not in reality. It’s not clear whether this suggests their earlier relationship also had its limits or whether the familiar image of the wall-climbing wayward students is itself being ironised – a cliché that is displaced by the later more painfully honest assessment of their relationship. The elaborate, polysyllabic phrase used to describe what the two students hoped to evade – “vigilant authority” – also suggests the way the poem looks to evade accepted modes of presenting such male friendships.

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This is even more clear when we reach the narrator’s statement about the subject of their earlier, collegiate discussions. They focused on personal identity and the allusion to John Keats points to that poet’s ideas about Negative Capability. Keats records the sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me”. Yet this absence of a resolved (what the poem calls “determined”) self, pushing confidently outwards, facilitates delicately perceptive encounters such as catching a glimpse of a “fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (229). The resultant freshness and truth, the absence of pre-judgement in such a moment, is what Keats valued and perhaps it is what this poem strives for in its examination of male friendship. The startling simile introduced here (“how a man / could possess no determined self, like a state / that sees no need of a constitution”) also gestures towards an underlying concern about national identity too. This is reinforced by the title of the poem and suggests that the issues of identity and division on a personal level might be reflected more broadly in contemporary Britain and the narrator’s observation that such a view now “looks as much risk as opportunity” indicates he sees subsequent developments (personally or politically) as putting closeness and cohesiveness at risk.

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In ‘An Easy Passage’, lines 19-22, create a dramatic pause or lull in the poem, a briefly “lit”, but still present, paradise of innocence. The statement that “for now the house exists / only for them” pre-empts the most significant change in perspective in Copus’s poem. Their innocence is indicated by the girls’ small scope of vision and the second half of the poem enacts its innocence / experience theme by drawing away to the wider perspectives of the street, the absent mother, the workers and finally the secretary. It is the latter who is said to be “most far” from the girl. The phrase ironically has the effect of associating the two characters, perhaps implying that the girl’s future can be seen in the older woman’s present situation. If so, the portrait is not inspiring with her small plans for an “evening class” or contrastingly improbable plans for the “trip of a lifetime”. The tone adopted about the “stirring omens” in an astrology column comes close to a sarcasm at the secretary’s expense. Growing distance and division are also indicated in lines 19-27 of ‘17 Britannia Square’ via the vivid details of the friend’s climb to the top of the ladder and his awkward tipping in through the bathroom window. The paralleling of the climb up the (social?) ladder and the reflections on identity are made explicit in the yoking together of literal and psychological facts: “I see you pull up the sash, begin to wriggle /into your bathroom and it seems less a truth / to last beyond our teens”. The simile describing the damage caused by the friend’s flailing foot, as he slips through the window (breaking it and making a “white star-burst like a rifle shot”), perhaps implies the demise of the earlier self. This is again reinforced by the forcible linking of immediate, physical events with more personal developmental vocabulary: “you vanish at last, absorbed to your house, / your job, your family”.

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But ‘17 Britannia Square’ is not really a poem about envy. In fact, the narrator waits below, watching his old friend vanish into his house/life, yet remains “in love with mine”. Furthermore, the closing lines of the poem present an act of Keatsian sympathetic imagination as the narrator melds past and present, himself and his friend into a moment of alertness to the possibilities of life, even if the possibilities are of growing alienation. The tone is not dark – the friend will re-appear at his own front door “laughing” – and the explicit birthing image of line 30 is equivocally described with the phrase “bruised and quivering”. The poem leaves the reader with a heightened sense of the unpredictability of individual lives as expressed in the choice of the word “strangeness”. The word implies estrangement but also of the richness of mutability and the unexpected, perhaps reminiscent of Ariel’s song to Ferdinand in The Tempest: “Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange”.

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By contrast, I think the youth and still-retained freedom of Copus’s two girls is described (from the secretary’s perspective now) with some envy (silver, neat, shimmering, flash, gracefully). It’s not clear if this is mere personal envy or that of an older generation viewing the more secure freedoms of younger women. Certainly, Copus loads ambiguity in at the close. The “shimmering- / oyster-painted toenails” re-evoke the beach image of line 16 and the graceful movement of the girl into the house suggests an assured transition into another element/time. Yet the simile of the nails flashing like “armaments” complicates matters. Is the suggestion that she will need not only grace and beauty but also an arsenal of weapons with which to defend herself in the adult world? Does the simile persuade us that the girl does possess such means to defend herself? Or that she lacks it (what use are painted toe-nails)? There is something surely ominous in the very last phrase, as she drops “into the shade of the house”.

So ‘An Easy Passage’ is full of the girls’ grace and beauty on the verge of adulthood. Through predominantly concrete description, the poem conveys complex emotions about their likely transition into the adult world and Copus leaves the nature of their future experiences carefully undefined. Crucefix’s poem is equally honest about what divides his two male figures as they have grown into maturity. It is largely money but also the divergent demands of house, job and family. Yet the poem develops ideas about the fluidity of personal identity from Keats’ thoughts on the matter and concludes that the human heart draws its sustenance as much from distance as closeness, pain as much as pleasure.

The Cleansing Tang of Otherness: C. S. Lewis’ ‘A Grief Observed’

By 1956, C.S. Lewis was famous as a Christian apologist, literary historian, critic, BBC broadcaster and a writer of science fiction and children’s books (the Narnia books appeared almost yearly from 1950 to 1956). He had long been a confirmed bachelor, living with a housekeeper and his brother in Headington, just outside Oxford, since 1930. For most of his life he’d been a don at Magdalen College, Oxford. Just the year before, in 1955, he had accepted a new professorship at Magdalene College, Cambridge, but remained living in Headington. An establishment, if eccentric, figure whose views on so many things are scarred by the era in which he grew up, nevertheless he is a writer capable of remarkable insight.


He first met Joy Gresham in September 1952 and the two grew closer over the ensuing four years. Gresham was an American whose marriage was collapsing. By 1956, she wanted to remain in the UK with her two children, but the Home Office refused to renew her visa. To secure her residence, Lewis offered to marry her in a civil ceremony in a registry office. He seems to have suggested that he already loved her in all ways but one – the erotic – and he would continue to do so. In fact, they had just four years of marital happiness (and a love that seems to have included the erotic) before Gresham died of cancer in July 1960. Lewis jotted thoughts down after the event, referring to it as a record, “a defence against total collapse, a safety valve”. What he wrote was published in 1961 (under a pseudonym) as A Grief Observed. A version of these events is played out in the film Shadowlands (1993).

A Grief Observed does what it says on the tin. Lewis observes the progress of his own grief after the death of Joy Gresham – she’s referred to in the text as Helen. For example, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” A little later: “I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman.” It’s these thoughts about a closely observed mental process that particularly interested me.


Lewis with Joy Gresham


Way back in 1926, in a now mostly unread long poem of ‘scientifiction’ (as he called the sci fi genre) called Dymer, an individual who for years has been refined, clipped, moulded and adorned by an oppressive regime suddenly acts freely: “Then came the moment that undid the whole – / The ripple of rude life without warning”. On that occasion, the rebellion of real/rude life takes the form of an almost inadvertent violent action. But this pattern of the mental/social construct being breached by an undeniable and more authentic reality seems for Lewis to have been one of those magnetic norths that serve to guide any reflective individual’s thinking. In Lewis’ religious thinking, the authentic was, of course, the presence of God. Epistemologically, he never doubted a real presence behind all perceived phenomena. And this is the point he makes in relation to his recall of his wife.


The accumulating false image of Helen would, of course, be founded on fact, nothing fictitious as such, but the composition of the image would become more and more his own. He compares the process to the settling of snowflakes: “little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end”. Eventually, if the process continues uninterrupted, the image “will do whatever you want. It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald, or argumentative just as your mood demands. It is a puppet of which you hold the strings”.

Lewis wonders if this is the real meaning of all those ballads and folk tales in which the dead return to the living to inform us that our mourning somehow does them wrong. Counter-intuitively, he argues it is our passionate grief that actually cuts us off from the dead. In such moments, because of the power of our emotion, all is “foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by [our] miseries”. The real presence of the lost one is swamped and submerged beneath a passionate egotism. Lewis observed something resembling this just a week after Joy’s death. An American, Nathan Starr, who he’d not met up with for years, visited him in Oxford and, in his notes, Lewis wrote: “don’t we often make this mistake as regards people who are still alive – who are with us in the same room? Talking and acting not to the man himself but to the picture – almost the précis – we’ve made of him in our own minds? And he has to depart from it pretty widely before we even notice”.


This matters less when the real person is on hand to breach and explode the fictional composition we make of them – though Lewis is right to note how tenaciously we hang on to our précis before accepting its divergence from the real. But in the case of the dead? “The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me”. In some of his most moving lines, this ageing don and once-confirmed bachelor argues: “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real”. One of Lewis’ great gifts was his ability to communicate. He often declared his belief in the vernacular, even (or rather especially) when it came to religion, arguing the vernacular was the real test – if beliefs could not be turned into it, then either you didn’t fully understand them or you didn’t truly believe them. In A Grief Observed, he describes what he misses of his wife’s real presence, “the rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness”. In contrast to the puppet-like, “insipid dependence” of the image or précis created by the person left behind, the lost one’s real presence was “obstinate, resistant, often intractable”.


Lewis’ house in Headington, Oxford


Moving from this particular to the general, it’s here that Lewis memorably declares “all reality is iconoclastic”. Our true acquaintance with reality or real presence is the only way to cleanse and scour our egotistical preconceptions whether of the dead or the living: “Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of H., but H. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour”. In William Griffin’s hyper-episodic biography of Lewis, he reports a 1944 BBC broadcast given by Lewis in which he refers to Christians as “new men”, a new step in evolution. This is because they have abandoned their own personalities and allowed God to inhabit them. In looking for your self, Lewis argued, you find only hatred, loneliness, despair and rage. In turning away from the self we find “Him, and with Him everything else thrown in”. This is interesting as it’s a later (though ironically more traditional) version of Keats’ Godless explanation of the importance of negative capability (which I have discussed at length elsewhere).

Whether in Keats’ or Lewis’ view, what the individual – whether we think of ourselves as artists or not – must always bring to the table is our attentiveness. The etymology of the word attend shows its roots lie in the Latin verb tendo – to stretch, to stretch out. The effort implied is the energy and precision with which we must perceive and this energy breaches the accumulated shell, the snow-cover of our preconceptions. At the close of A Grief Observed Lewis says “Attention is an act of will. Intelligence in action is will par excellence”. The willing poet, of course, must apply attentiveness in 3 directions – to the outer world (including the living and the dead), to my inner conditions, to my language.











Where’s My Master Gone – Don Paterson v Li Po

Don Paterson’s 1997 book, God’s Gift to Women (Faber) includes a poem sporting the title ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. The reader’s eye hops off the perch of this lengthy title only to flutter down, looking in vain for a foothold, for a line, even a word – it’s a completely blank page. In a collection that includes a poem called ‘Postmodern’ and another on ‘The Alexandrian Library’, the joke is obvious enough. Any search for ‘masterly’ advice in the Kyushu Mountains or closer to home in a post-modern, relativist world in which language hides as much as it might reveal, must draw a blank. I remember seeing the poem – probably heard Paterson ‘read’ it too – the long title building expectation, a too-long pause, the announcement of the next poem (cue laughter) – and something bothered me. I think now I know what it was.


I wondered if Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu (tr. Arthur Cooper, 1973). The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Cooper’s note tells us that ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’ is actually a very common theme in Chinese poetry. Such a poem (we are told) is not just an excuse for a “nature poem” but relates to the frequent “spirit-journeys” that Li Po was fond of writing. Here is Cooper’s translation:


Where the dogs bark

by roaring waters,

whose spray darkens

the petals’ colours,

deep in the woods

deer at times are seen;


the valley noon:

one can hear no bell,

but wild bamboos

cut across bright clouds,

flying cascades

hang from jasper peaks;


no one here knows

which way you have gone:

two, now three pines

I have leant against!


I had come across this poem while compiling my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990). I liked it for reasons I didn’t then understand and, in a very simple form of translation, I wrote an up-dated version:


Looking for an Old Man


Where red dogs bark

on the sodium ring-road

and traffic noise

blackens adjacent houses,

I’ve come to seek you.


In each garden I pass,

pale heads of bindweed.

The night is undistinguished.

The savour of coalsmoke

flattens across the kerb.


No-one here knows

which way you have gone:

two, now three lampposts

I’ve leant against.


Li Po is the more Daoist of the two poets presented as a complementary pair in this Penguin book. Now, with a bit more understanding of this tradition, I’m sure that 26 years ago I was responding to something at the heart of the poem. The fact that the Daoist master cannot be found by the searching student is precisely the point since the Daoist teacher teaches “in the absence of words” (Chapter 43, ‘Best Teaching’) as I translated it in my version of the Daodejing (Enitharmon, 2016).

Interestingly, Li Po’s poem expresses this not with a blank page but (as Cooper says) through further encounters with “nature” (petals, woods, deer, valley, bamboo, clouds) or, in my version, the natural and urban world (ring-road, traffic, houses, garden, bindweed, coalsmoke, kerb). Whether we designate this a ‘spiritual’ journey or not, the point remains that the student’s search for knowledge in the form of a direct download from some master must be denied. The student’s anxious search for guidance is reflected in the number of pines/lampposts he leans against as well as the geographical over-specificity of the titles of such poems. The student’s dependency and naïve optimism is the satirical butt of the poem as he is directed back to the source of all knowledge (the world surrounding him) even as he wanders in search of his master. So Paterson’s 1997 version achieves three things: it misrepresents the spirit of the original, it’s more dramatic (comic), it’s more superficial.


When I first read Li Po’s poem I was coming off the back of doctoral work on the Romantics, especially Shelley whose ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821) argues that the “poetry in [our] systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes [. . .] we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know”. This is succinctly put in Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, defined as a passive openness to the fullest range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. The student in Li Po’s poem seeks just such certainties and facts and is gently deflected back into the world of observation where (I take it) he is encouraged to pursue a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with the 10,000 things which (in Daoism) constitute the One, ‘what is’.

The two attitudes to knowledge here are really two ‘ways of being’ as Iain McGilchrist’s fascinating book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) phrases it. McGilchrist argues that right and left human brain hemispheres deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”. Shelley described this in 1821 and linked it to the processes of Reason and this is the attitude to knowledge and education that the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses. In contrast, what Shelley calls Poetry or the Imagination is what McGilchrist associates with the right brain. It tends to perceive “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”.


Without doubt, this is also the viewpoint of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the uncarved block, the One, and who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage is dependent on conceptual thought which is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. I imagine that Li Po’s master-teacher and sage is deliberately hiding somewhere beyond the bamboo canes – and this is part of the student’s lesson.

So Don Paterson’s blank page bothers me because – as McGilchrist expresses it – it represents a rather glib, post-modern position, a scepticism about language which is in danger of throwing out the interconnected real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth” (McGilchrist, p. 6). I’m also reminded of Yves Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battle with the early stirrings of French post-modernism. He writes: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us. In what can be felt and sensed”. In The Tombs of Ravenna (1953), he names this underlying truth, not as existence, but as “presence”. The right brain knows this; the left brain sets about fragmenting it, making use of it, disappearing it.

Yves Bonnefoy

Keats’ Negative Capability Clearly Explained

Recently I went with some teaching colleagues to Keats House, London, to hear a discussion about the poet’s idea of Negative Capability and psychoanalysis. The speakers were Dr Margot Waddell, a child psychotherapist from the Tavistock Clinic, and Dr Toni Griffiths, Trustee of the Keats Foundation. Both were fascinating, condensing whole areas of scholarly knowledge into accessible (if intense) 45 minute talks. Waddell focused on the acknowledged influence of Keats’ idea on the work of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion.


I’m not sure I feel very qualified to comment on that intriguing area without a good deal further reading, but a memorable phrase arose from it: Waddell argued that Bion saw the way that preconception obstructs perception and how this must adversely affect the therapist/patient relationship. Toni Griffiths’ elegant and economical discussion of Keats’ work (not merely the Negative Capability idea) set off several days of thought for me and has produced what I think will be two blog posts. Firstly, and perhaps largely for myself, I wanted to clarify my own understanding of Keats’ idea which has long meant a great deal to me. In my next post, I want to explain how those thoughts have “dove-tailed” (Keats’ own brilliant phrase in the Negative Capability letter to his brothers George and Tom, December 1817) with a recent translation of Yves Bonnefoy’s 1953 essay The Tombs of Ravenna (in the most recent PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015, pp. 58-63).

This second blog is now available to be read here.

What follows below is my assemblage of observations from Keats’ letters, hopefully into a clear argument, indeed, into Keats’ coherent theory of poetic achievement and practice (though Negative Capability of course eschews all such systematizing). Page numbers in brackets are to John Keats: Selected Letters (Oxford World Classics, newly revised 2002).


In his 1817 letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats wishes for “a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” (36). Just a year later, in a letter to James Hessey, he clarifies this distinction, suggesting that poetry is not “matured by law & precept, but by sensation and watchfulness” (146). The language use Keats associates with law and precept is evidently a fixed, a “preresolved” (303) language. What he seeks inits place is rather a language sufficiently flexuous and responsive to “watchfulness”, to attentiveness and often, when Keats discusses this, there is a strong sense of passivity. Writing to Bailey, characteristically using the phrase that an idea had “pressed upon” him (35), he says it has “increased my Humility and capability of submission”. The idea he is referring to is that artists (“Men of Genius”) “have not any individuality, any determined character”, as opposed to “Men of Power” who are replete and resolved in “a proper self” (35).

Keats’ distrust of such self-confident preresolution famously emerges in the 1818 letter to John Reynolds, as his dislike and distrust of poetry that has a “palpable design” on us (58) and to Bailey he contrasts this with an alertness to the “holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination” (36/7). Preresolution pre-packages or pre-limits our emotional and spiritual life, whereas Keats is intent on welcoming “all”. This is what he means in the phrase “a Life of Sensations”, the latter word (rather misleadingly) encompassing both emotional and spiritual life as well as a full, open and alert response to the world about us. Such a full engagement with present experience is where we feel Imagination at work: Keats asks Bailey if he has not felt this in even such common experiences as listening to “an old Melody” and in the “elevation of the Moment” Keats declares we are “mounted on the Wings of Imagination” (37).


This ideal of a radical openness to present experience and its passive acceptance, was further clarified for Keats in his later dealings with his friend, Charles Dilke, who was becoming something of a political bore (spouting Godwinian philosophy and politics), a man who had resolved upon most issues. Keats again links this state to identity: Dilke is “a man who cannot feel he has a personal identity unless he has made his Mind up about every thing” (303). Dilke is one of the “stubborn arguers” who never begin upon any subject “they have not preresolved upon” (303). In contrast, Keats argues the only means of strengthening one’s intellect and identity “is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts” (303).

Keats’ best formulation of this idea arises when several things “dovetailed” in his mind after another frustrating debate with Dilke. The quality that marks out the artist – Shakespeare especially, he says – is Negative Capability. He defines this as consisting of a passive openness to the full range of human experience (“uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts”) without any imposition of preconceived notions, preresolved ideas or language: “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (41/2). Once again, the best way to understand this is through Keats’ word “watchfulness”, an attentiveness to the true nature of experiences. In yet another foray into these ideas, he experiments with the word “disinterestedness”. This again implies the absence of a forceful or dominating self, full of preconceived ideas, words, precepts. Writing to his brother George, he says “complete disinterestedness” is a difficult goal. He admits he is himself “far” from it though personally and in social terms he believes it “ought to be carried to its highest pitch” (213).


Such moments of disinterested perception occur in his observation of a sparrow picking about on the gravel (37). Approached with Negative Capability this mundane moment becomes something that “startles” and Keats says “I take part in its existince [sic]” (37). In this way, the poet is continually “filling some other body” (148). Such is the truth in a “Life of Sensations”, fuelled by Imagination, and one of the delights of a human life is that these happy moments will continue to be “repeated in a finer tone and so repeated”. The mind develops in this way through the repetition “of its own silent Working” (36). These refinements of the mind can occur only when experience is encountered openly, nakedly, even dangerously. To Reynolds, Keats wrote that to become fully “fit for this world”, with all its pains and hardship, a man would have to have “the fine point of his soul taken off” (39). But the poet or artist cannot afford to be so blunted by experiences but must remain radically open, even submissive to them. In the same letter to Reynolds, Keats quotes Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis: “As the snail, whose tender horns being hit, / Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain”. Such a reaction of withdrawal must not be countenanced by the would be artist. To Richard Woodhouse, Keats wrote “What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the camelion [sic] Poet” (148). The work of the poet experiences “no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one” (148).


Keats recognizes and accepts the personal, experiential conclusion of such thoughts as he records his own sensation of feeling annihilated in a crowded room because “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me” (148). Yet this absence of a resolved self (pushing and barging over-confidently outwards) leaves room for such delicate encounters as that with the sparrow and on other occasions, catching a glimpse “of a stoat or fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it” (213). Keats regards such escape from or evasion of this confinement to self as a form of purification: “there is an ellectric [sic] fire in human nature tending to purify” (213). He names Socrates and Jesus as perfections of this state, though “it is to be lamented that the history of the latter was written and revised by men interested in the pious fraud of Religion” (214). Of course, poetry must also aspire to this state and (as David Constantine has argued in his Bloodaxe lectures, A Living Language 2004)) Keats’ “gymnastics” in trying to broaden his native language-use (with its preresolutions) through a variety of foreign poetic experiments suggests he knew this well enough.


By the spring of 1819, Keats was further developing his ideas about the role and nature of the self with the letter discussing life as a “vale of Soul-making”. He dismisses naïve ideas of the “perfectibility” (232) of mankind, even doubting the real progress made by any “seldom appearing Socrates”. He jokes that fish are as likely to “philosophise the ice away from the Rivers” as man is likely to arrive at a perfect state because “the nature of the world will not admit it” (232). However much happiness a man can experience, there will still be worldly elements that “prey upon his nature”. It is from this conviction that Keats proposes – in stark contrast to any Christian reading of man’s life –the idea that we are born as intelligences (“sparks of the divinity” or “atoms of perception” (232)). Then through a system of “Spirit-creation”, the intelligence develops into a Soul by refining an individuality or identity. This process is an educative one, fuelled by Negative Capability, in that the world is allowed to impact fully on the human heart which is led to “feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways” (233). Man can never achieve a state of perfection but as the world’s school of hard knocks is openly, vulnerably embraced so the process of individuation occurs via emotional experience. It follows that the human heart is “the teat from which the Mind or intelligence sucks its identity” (233). As various as the lives of all individuals are, so “various become their souls” since individual emotional experiences are the “fortifiers or alterers” of our ever-developing nature (234).

So Keats’ ideal poet must possess Negative Capability to fully experience the world before him without preresolution. Armed with sufficient language skills to express the plenitude of these experiences, the poet’s role is then to re-present them to the reader in such a way that the poem itself contributes to the reader’s own developing emotional life. The work of art is therefore an important contribution to the reader’s own on-going process of Spirit creation or individuation (though this is only going to occur if the reader too is possessed of Negative Capability and is not someone who opens a book of poems with firmly preresolved expectations and ideas).