An event which focused on poetry and psychoanalysis was presented by the Keats Foundation at Keats House in Hampstead on 4th November 2015.  Two lectures were devoted to an exploration of Keats’s idea of ‘negative capability’, which the poet described as follows in a letter to his brothers in 1817:  ‘I mean Negative Capability, that is when Man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’.

Toni Griffiths, a Trustee of the Keats Foundation and formerly of UCL, explored in her lecture where the idea of ‘negative capability’ sprang from and lived in Keats’s work. She spoke of how the hard-arrived-at core of Keats’s experience as a man and as a poet was to understand – and to feel – that pain and pleasure, love and hate, life and death were indivisible and that the true contemplation of Beauty meant a deep acknowledgment, an acceptance of this – not an intellectual acceptance alone but the developed capacity within the self to bear the experience of contradiction. 

Dr Margot Waddell, psychoanalyst and formerly of the Tavistock Clinic, described in her lecture how Keats’s idea of ‘negative capability’ had been responded to by the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion. She showed how those capacities that Keats so beautifully described are precisely the ones that Bion’s ‘model of the mind’ are based upon.  They are the ones that do, genuinely, have the capacity to remain in doubt and in an ‘unsaturated’ and therefore receptive state, without needing to find exhaustive answers too quickly.

The event attracted a capacity audience and there was a lively discussion following the two lectures.  Many people had to be turned away and it may prove possible to repeat the event. The Keats Foundation is grateful to the curator and staff of Keats House for their support of the event which featured in the formal Keats House Programme.