Posts Tagged ‘John Keats’

Negative Capability

February 24, 2010

Today, February 23, is the anniversary of the death of poet John Keats. I noticed the date of his death recently and realized it was the same date that my 40-day committment/experiment of blog writing was ending; the day I would be deciding whether and why to continue investing time and energy this way. I flattered myself by deciding that the coincidence of this date might mean something since Keats means so much to me. How can a writer who died at the age of 24 have had so much effect on the thinking of so many people for almost 200 years now? I just bought a huge biography about Keats and I’m going to investigate.

In honor of him today I want to mention the comfort that one little phrase he wrote in a letter to his brother has given to me. He refers to: “Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” I read this soon after resigning from the ministry. After 20 years of having a system of spiritual practice and faith, a wonderful map of how to think and be, I was suddenly and unexpectedly drowning in uncertainties and doubts. I doubted everything, was certain of nothing. It was terrifying. When I came across these words of Keats’ they affected me deeply. It was my first sign that there might be value and sense in the experience I was having. Aha, now I see, I am developing a “capability!” It is a capability that poets seek. I was losing most of everything familiar, but now I understood that I was gaining something also. That one little phrase possibly saved me from an utter sense of despair, helping me to embrace and trust my life at that crucial time.

And so, in honor of Keats and what he taught me about the power of words to convey life-saving notions far beyond what is actually speakable, and in thanks to the spirits visible and invisible that helped me make up my mind, I believe I will continue this blog writing venture. I don’t need to know facts or reasons why just yet, I can stay in the mystery. It’s Negative Capability.

The Other Side of the Wall

February 10, 2010

Recently I read in one of Rilke’s poems the following beautiful words. The image has stayed with me hauntingly. Talking to God who Rilke imagines living in the room next door he writes:

I know you are all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
it would barely make a sound.

The picture this put in my mind has caused me to listen differently, especially as I am waking up in the morning. Just on the other side of these walls, who stirs? Are you there?

To add to the power this held for me, just a couple of nights ago I watched an extraordinary movie directed by Jane Campion, Bright Star. Her movies regularly contain images that come out of the screen and take up residence with me. This film is about the poet John Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne. When Keats was ill and staying in her family home, she would go to bed at night knowing he was just on the other side of the wall. Woven through the story, Campion keeps going back to shots of Fanny touching the wall lovingly, putting her ear to it with a tender and seraphic expression on her face.

Then tonight we had an especially strong experience in our dream group. Driving home, these images spoke again to me. Dreamwork is like listening through the wall, as Rilke listened for God, as Fanny listened for any breath coming the one she loved so strongly. The wall of the dream can feel so thin, the murmurings so intelligible. Other times the wall feels thicker and we have to hold the posture of listening more intently, waiting for a flutter of meaning to flow through.

It is a posture to hold for living. I want to keep a mental picture of the actress, Abbie Cornish, listening through the wall as she did to remind me that it isn’t always having of what we long for that matters, it is the longing itself that keeps us vibrantly hopeful and alive.