Teasing Us Out of Thought: John Keats

by Can V. Yeginsu

Dedicated to my Muse at Princeton


I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & 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 & reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. [1]

This famous excerpt from Keats’s letter of December 1817 to his brothers has been the subject of numerous critical discussions, in which the intellectual origins of ‘Negative Capability’ have been traced in eighteenth-century aesthetic, literary, and philosophical backgrounds. Perhaps best known is Walter Jackson Bate’s analysis of the ‘interplay and coalescence of impressions’ in the letter, illustrating how Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse, Edmund Kean’s acting, and the ‘intensity’ of King Lear formed an aesthetic constellation which was shaped by Keats’s assimilation of Hazlitt’s thought, particularly his essay ‘On Gusto’ from The Round Table.[2] Negative Capability has continued to be a central preoccupation of Keats criticism and, indeed, most recent studies of Keats attest to the enduring plurisignation of the concept.[3] However, it is my contention in this essay that critics have underestimated the role of teasing in Keats’s conception of Negative Capability, especially in relation to the idea of the sympathetic imagination. The capacity for being in ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ is partly for Keats, I will argue, the capacity for being teased. Negative Capability requires an artist to be seen being in ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’; it is the opposite of the mysterious self-negation Jerome McGann outlines:

In such a work [To Autumn, Ode on a Grecian Urn] the poet – as so many critics have said – seems almost to have achieved a state of negative capability: to have removed himself from his poem and to have erased his self-consciousness. [4]

This sounds as if Shakespeare’s genius consists less in his intellectual integrity than in his ability to decamp slyly out of his sonnets without paying the rent. Negative Capability, for Keats at least, means the reverse of ‘removing’ oneself; it is a question of patient engagement, ‘remaining content with half-knowledge’(my emphasis).

Through the ‘state perplexing’[5] of his central character in Endymion, completed less than a month before he wrote the Negative Capability letter, Keats explores the experiences of being teased. As the Oxford English Dictionary[6] records, both ‘perplex’ and ‘tease’ have a weaving root from which the intellectual sense derives: ‘perplex’ from the Latin ‘plectêre’ meaning to plait or interweave, and ‘tease’ originally having the sense of ‘to separate or pull asunder the fibres of, to comb or card (wool, flax etc) in preparation for spinning; to open out by pulling asunder; to shred’. The remarkable number of words associated with weaving in the poem suggests that Endymion’s melancholic, ‘self-teasing’(Endyn,I.740-7) enjoyment consists in being perpetually ravelled and unravelled, teased out and then knotted again.[7] He is happy to wander in ‘uncertain ways’(Endyn,II.48), flinging himself ‘Down, down, uncertain to what pleasant doom’(Endyn,II.661). Similarly, Shakespeare’s contentment with ‘half-knowledge’ echoes Endymion’s pleasure in ‘half-graspable’ delights (Endyn,II.673); the number of half-compounds in the poem suggests a world of obscured perspectives, suspension and semi-fulfilled experience: ‘half bare… half sleeping… half smiles… half asleep… half happy… half glad… half lost… half awake… half way… half raught… half-entranced…half-fledg’d…half-forgetfulness’. [8]

Keats’s exploration of the different strands of ‘the shore / Of tangled wonder’(Endyn,IV.654-5) stresses the ambivalences of being teased more sharply in Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!


These lines may offer a better starting-point for understanding the poem than do the closing words on which most critics have centred their attention.[9] Barnard’s edition suggests two possible readings. In the first, ‘the urn defeats our attempts to reason’ – this incorporates the second sense of ‘tease’ in the OED ‘to worry or irritate by persistent action which vexes or annoys; to disturb by persistent, petty annoyance, out of mere mischief or sport; to bother or plague in a petty way’. The second reading proposes that ‘the urn raises us beyond merely intellectual speculation to an intuitive level,’[10] which admits the physical sense of ‘tease’ - ‘to separate or pull asunder the fibres of, to comb or card (wool, flax etc) in preparation for spinning’. The logic of this second reading seems deliberately complex since it requires the reader to equate the ‘us’ with the burrs, thorns, and thistles which the weaver wants to eliminate in order to make something of the wool, and then make him/her question where exactly he is once he has been ‘teased out of thought’, and whether being ‘out of thought’ is a good thing or not.

These potential worries reflect the observer’s complicated response to the urn and what the urn represents. Part of Keats’s interest in the urn, however, is that it does not ‘represent’ anything at all (though scenes are represented on it). Similarly poems such as ‘On Receiving a Curious Shell, and a Copy of Verses, from the Same Ladies’, ‘To Mrs. Reynolds’s Cat’, ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’, and ‘Lines on Seeing a Lock of Milton’s Hair’ suggest a fascination with objects for their own unique properties. Endymion, too, contains a tongue-in-cheek amalgamation of Biblical and epic jumble-sale objects whose main source may be Pope’s ‘Cave of Spleen’ in The Rape of the Lock:

Old rusted anchors, helmets, breast-plates large / Of gone sea-warriors…gold vase emboss’d / With long-forgotten story…mouldering scrolls…sculptures rude / In ponderous stone…skeletons of man / Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan, / And elephant, and eagle, and huge jaw / Of nameless monster.


His letters from the tour during the summer of 1818 similarly convey a strong sense of the unassimilable alienness of the outside world. This may take shape in the grotesque, enigmatic figure of the ‘Duchess of Dunghill’(LJK,I.321) or in local children country-dancing: ‘I was extremely gratified to think, that if I had pleasures they knew nothing of they had also some into which I could not possibly enter’(LJK,I.307).

Sterne’s world of unconsidered objects, which in their abundance and materiality mock man’s set and formal proceedings, may have tangentially influenced this aspect of Keats’s imagination.[11] In a sermon Sterne presents the inscrutability of little everyday objects as part of an argument against man’s proud search for complete knowledge of the world and of God’s ways. His manner chimes with Keats’s criticism of Coleridge in the Negative Capability letter:

…have not the most obvious things that come in our way dark sides, which the quickest sight cannot penetrate into; and do not the clearest and most exalted understandings find themselves puzzled, and at a loss, in every particle of matter?… consider [proud man] the beginnings and ends of things, the greatest and the smallest, how they all conspire to baffle thee. [12]

The enigmatic urn, a ‘Sylvan historian’ whose haunting ‘leaf-fring’d legend’ remains untold, similarly puzzles and baffles its observer, teasing him out of thought (Grecian Urn,ll.3-5). The non-reciprocity of the ‘Cold Pastoral’ constitutes part of the complex attraction of the urn since, as Hazlitt remarked, ‘Greek statues…are marble to the touch and to the heart…in their faultless excellence they appear sufficient to themselves…They seem to have no sympathy with us, and not to want our admiration’.[13]

The semantic richness of Keats’s ‘tease’, however, points to a possible slide between the attractiveness of cool indifference and the pain of cruel indifference. The latent violence of ‘to separate or pull asunder the fibres of…to shred’ has, by 1821, produced the slang meaning ‘to flog’, which the OED gives as 1821 but which seems present in Isabella (1818):


                          They dipp’d their swords in the water, and did tease
                          Their horses homeward, with convulsed spur…


Paradoxically, the same qualities, which elicit the observer’s admiration, quietly ‘flog’ him by renewing his consciousness of his own frailty. The urn is immortal and inviolable. Its lovers ‘cannot fade’ because they are ‘For ever panting and for ever young’ and, unlike those who look at the urn, they remain ‘All breathing human passion far above’ (Grecian Urn, l.19; ll.27-28).[14] ‘As doth eternity’ implies a kind of smug mockery: whereas the observer lives in a mutable and painful world, the urn will ‘remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours’(ll.47-8). The ‘remaining’ is equivocal, however, since the urn offers consolation for present and future generations whilst simultaneously suggesting the inherent limitation of such comforts – the urn itself may once have contained previous generations’ ashes. Such a concern with human suffering might make us question Marjorie Levinson’s argument that Negative Capability involves deliberate falsification of the realities of human existence:

Keats’s poetry was at once a tactical activity, or an escape route from an actual life, and a final construction: the concrete imaginary to that apparitional actual. What was, initially, a substitute for a grim life became for Keats a substitute life: a real life of substitute things – simulacra – which, though they do not nourish, neither do they waste.[15]

Levinson’s sentimental and inaccurate description of Keats’s life as merely ‘grim’ (not the impression we get from the letters), and her unsympathetically rigid terms for Keats’s more fluid view of ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ life, indicate a deeper misrepresentation of Keats’s imagination. The ‘negative’ of Negative Capability is not an adolescent refusal to grow up in a ‘grim’ world, as Levinson believes. It originates in his scepticism, his willingness to accept that the answers of fact and reason may prove to be illusory and to be themselves a form of escapism from a world of ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’. Contradictions necessarily inhere in such a viewpoint: hence the urn perplexes, ‘teases’, the observer by both reminding him of his own mortality and by engaging intimately with him as a trusted ‘friend’. It is in the security of trust and mutual understanding that the pleasure of the teasing derives, in that it indicates the strength of a relationship which can incorporate comic mockery.

Keats’s letters, at least, testify to his pleasure in teasing and being teased by his friends. He irreverently jokes with Hunt about the latter’s struggle to finish The Nymphs:

How are the Nymphs? I suppose they have led you a fine dance–Where are you now–In Judea, Cappadocia, or the Parts of Lybia about Cyrene, Strangers from "Heaven, Hues and Prototypes…"


And, conversely, he plays the moralist in an imaginative adieu to Reynolds: ‘remember me to each of our Card playing Club–when you die you will all be turned into Dice, and be put in pawn with the Devil–for Cards they crumple up like any King’ (LJK,I.190). Elsewhere (LJK,I.241), he gently baits Bailey about the misery of Devonshire weather (Bailey had previously praised the area’s climate), precisely tabulates Georgiana’s anticipated new daily-routine in America in such detail as to suggest mutual intimacy (LJK,II.92), and half-seriously assumes the guise of a daring Romeo with Fanny Brawne:

At Winchester I shall get your Letters more readily; and it being a cathedral City I shall have a pleasure always a great one to me when near a Cathedral, of reading them during the service up and down the Aisle…


The imaginary pleasure is because we can both picture Keats reading the letters during the sermon and Fanny’s slightly shocked but flattered reaction to his suggestion.

A similarly literate, worldly and affectionate tone informs his teasing in the early epistolary poems. In Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed, he comically juxtaposes the classical and the heroic with domestic commonplaces: ‘Alexander with his night-cap on- / Old Socrates a tying his cravat’(ll.8-9) - though it is not until the seventh line that the reader can gauge the tone of Keats’s, at first, potentially worrying remarks about his sleepless nights. Likewise, he wryly suggests the ambiguous nature of Cowden Clark’s poetic pleasures by merging the erotic and the aesthetic in coy self-deprecatory verse:

…my thoughts were never free, and clear,
And little fit to please a classic ear…
Small good to one who had by Mulla’s stream
Fondled the maidens with the breasts of cream…

(To Charles Cowden Clarke, ll.23-24;33-34)

The joke turns on the momentary uncertainty as to how metaphorical ‘Fondled’ and ‘Mulla’s stream’ are.[16] He is slightly more arch in To My Brother George (epistle):

It has been said, dear George, and true I hold it,
(For knightly Spenser to Libertas told it,)
That when a Poet is in such a trance,
In air he sees white coursers paw, and prance
Bestridden of gay knights, in gay apparel…
And what we, ignorantly, sheet-lightning call,
Is the swift opening of their wide portal.


Here the tease has something of a double movement. The verse achieves, on one level, a distancing effect through his affectation of Spenser’s narrative voice with its concomitant self-consciousness about being ‘a poet’.[17] Yet on another level the conceit implies shared amusement at the delusions poets get wrapped up in, a clubbiness suggested by the assumed familiarity with Hunt’s nickname ‘Libertas’, the secretly confiding brackets of line 24, and the use of ‘we’ in line 29.

In the letters, Keats’s archness often takes the form of amused social observation – as in his description of Isabella Jones’s lodgings: ‘a very tasty sort of place’ with a fashionably liberal and expensive ‘bronze statue of Buonaparte’, and an equally modish ‘æolian Harp’(LJK,I.402). Social stereotypes like the prim, effete and self-regarding parson appealed to Keats as much as they did to Austen who gives us the ‘spruce, black and smiling’ figure of Mr Elton in Emma.[18] Keats is writing to his sister Fanny:

I am glad you got on so well with Monsr le Curè–is he a nice Clergyman–a great deal depends upon a cock’d hat and powder–not gun powder, lord love us, but lady-meal, violet-smooth, dainty-scented lilly-white, feather-soft, wigsby-dressing, coat-collar-spoiling whisker-reaching, pig-tail loving, swans down-puffing, parson–sweetening powder…


Where Austen strikes deftly and economically, Keats assails his unknown victim with a mixture of gentle irony (‘Monsr le Curè implying the parson’s desire for wordly sophistication), and affectation of gushing, ‘maternal’ solicitude (‘is he a nice Clergyman’). He adds to these laboured, vulgar wit (‘not gun powder, lord love us’), and inventive sensuous detailing in the style of Laurence Sterne thereby turning the joke against parsons more into a self-conscious verbal game.

Flickers of such archness appear in the poems, too, sometimes intimating Keats’s irritation with aspects of his subject-matter and sometimes indicating his teasing of the reader with playful handling of poetic conventions. As Keats sympathises with Reynolds ‘very much teased in that precious London’ (LJK,I.166), so he himself is irritated by the over-refinement and affected civility of the Grecian urn. The language describing the urn conjures the image of a young girl dressed up in her elder sister’s fashionable clothes and out for attention. ‘Fair attitude’(Grecian Urn,l.41) possesses both the technical sense of the ‘disposition of a figure in a statuary or painting’, and the psychological, social meaning - ‘a posture of the body proper to, or implying, some action or mental state’(OED). This connection is supported by the double-mention of the urn’s ‘shape’ and the sexual arousal conveyed by the fervid questioning in the first stanza. Similarly, ‘maidens overwrought’(l.42) suggests the gauche over-refinement of a Mrs. Elton who looks ‘as elegant as lace and pearls could make her’.[19] The adjective means both ‘fashioned over the surface of the urn’ and ‘exhausted by over-work; worked up to too high a pitch; over-excited’. His deletion of a comma from the original version (‘With brede / Of marble men and maidens, overwrought’) implies an intentional ambiguity since ‘overwrought’ in the original line only refers to ‘brede’. The homophonic pun on ‘brede’ – it has both the sense of ‘offspring’ and is a poeticism for anything interwoven or plaited – contributes to the socially playful tones of the final stanza in its mocking juxtaposition of the fecund ‘brede’ with the sexual barrenness of ‘marble men’ and ‘maidens’. Along with ‘still-unravished bride’ and ‘foster-child’, which create a sense of displaced relationships, illegitimacy, and unnaturalness at the poem’s inception, ‘overwrought’ and the pun of ‘brede’ serve to objectify the observer’s view of the urn and imply an ambivalent appreciation of the urn’s value.

Such an irritated yet engaged perception of the urn’s preciousness echoes Keats’s description of Fanny on first meeting her:

beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange…Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements–her Arms are good her hands badish–her feet tolerable–she is not seventeen–but she is ignorant–monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions, calling people such names–that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx–this is no[t] from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly.


Bate notes that Fanny possessed an ‘almost pedantic interest in everything relating to clothes’: she would select ribbons to match the colour of her eyes, pride herself on her knowledge of historical costumes and French fashion and, later, assiduously advised Fanny Keats about ‘proper’ dress and deportment.[21] Keats’s precise but generous assessment of Fanny (‘this is I think no[t] from any innate vice’) resembles his indulgence of Madeline’s youthful vanity and coquetry in The Eve of St. Agnes. We sense that he finds both characters’ faults endearing as well as amusing; his judgement of Fanny is tempered by an edge of self-mockery at his own pompous stance as a Mr. Knightly figure: ‘calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term "minx"’ – this itself being an act of name-calling. He expresses the pull between Madeline’s superstitiously pious attention to the rites of St. Agnes and her consciousness of the attentions of the ‘amorous cavalier[s]’ (l.60) through a bathetic effect which neatly plays with the shape of the verse:

So, purposing each moment to retire,
She linger’d still…


Here, ‘linger’d’ resonates comically against ‘purposing each moment’ and captures her reluctance to leave the flattering charms of her admirers. By comparison, Byron’s similarly acute treatment of Donna Julia is aphoristically sharper and less gentle than Keats’s lines: ‘And whispering "I will ne’er consent" – consented’.[22]

Keats’s ironic handling of his heroine’s superstitious naïveté – ‘Full of this whim was thoughtful Madeline’ (l.33) – forms, however, part of a deeper social tease which he has already touched upon in Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition. Like Hazlitt, Keats was interested in the simple, old-fashioned customs and primitive folklore of rural communities, though this did not extend to the modern, vulgar superstitions of an urban lower-middle class (his own origins). His slight hauteur in Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition, The Eve of St. Agnes and The Eve of St. Mark stems mainly from contempt for the ‘patient folk and slow’ (St. Mark,l.20), who believe the superstitions of populist movements such as Methodism. Keats’s milieu of cosy, fraternal bookishness evoked by ‘fireside joys’ (Vulgar Superstition,l.6) contrasts sharply with the sneer at ‘fireside orat’ries’(l.16) of the worshippers in The Eve of St. Mark, an image which suggests the domesticated, aggressively anti-intellectual attitudes Keats detested. ‘Folk’, which he uses twice[23] to describe the church-goers, has strong class associations at this time: ‘the great mass as opposed to an individual; the people; the vulgar’ (OED). It is precisely the superstitious fears of the common ‘folk’ of Yorkshire which Keats’s main source for both The Eve of St. Agnes and The Eve of St. Mark records.[24]

There is a different kind of teasing in Keats’s treatment of genre and subject-matter in The Eve of St. Agnes. His comments on the addition of the final stanza indicate that he was deliberately courting a complex set of responses, including irritation. Woodhouse noted that Keats intended the lines ‘to leave on the reader a sense of pettish disgust, by bringing Old Angela in (only) dead stiff & ugly. – He says he likes that the poem should leave off with this Change of Sentiment’.[25] ‘Pettish disgust’ describes the effect we associate more with Byron’s kind of teasing (as Woodhouse goes on to observe) – ‘to disturb by persistent, petty annoyance, out of mere mischief or sport’ (OED) – and indicates the inevitable loss of intimacy and reciprocity involved in the transition from the personal epistolary poem to ‘public’ poems where the readers are essentially unknown to the poet.[26] The harsher tone may be a consequence, too, of Keats’s desire to make his poetry less ‘smokeable’ after criticism of Endymion as sentimental and self-indulgent. [27]

Much of the poem’s success depends on the ‘change[s] of sentiment’, turns and ambivalences Keats hinted at to Woodhouse. He employs the Spenserian stanza, archaisms and Miltonic inversions so as to present Porphyro’s wooing of Madeline in both mock-heroic and ‘serious’ epic form. On one level he plays with epic conventions, jarring epic terminology against clichés (‘the joys of all his life were said and sung’), low-register constructions (‘bloated wassailers’), and sexual innuendoes such as ‘he arose, / Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star’(l.23;346;318). He is loosely parodying too, the diction and stock set-pieces of Gothic romance: the Mediæval architecture of the chapel and castle with its dark passageways, the illicit, passionate youthful relationship, the superstitious fears of Madeline, the caricature of the ageing female attendance, the aura of sinister magic at work in the allusion to Merlin (l.171).[28] On another level the epic form, with its Spenserian and Miltonic verbal sanctions, implies the enduring importance of the poem’s subject-matter: romance, passion, love. The parallel with Romeo and Juliet does not merely point the contrast with a seedy contemporary world of stratagems and hoodwinking. As Empson, alluding to the play, has observed:

An irony has no point unless it is true, in some degree, in both senses … the fundamental impulse of irony is to score off both the arguments that have been puzzling you … a plague on both their houses.[29]

‘Scoring off both the arguments’ may complicate the reader’s response as he/she tries to gauge the tone of the irony. Pope, noticing the confused reaction of his readers to The Rape of the Lock, described the poem as ‘a sort of writing very like tickling’ - ‘tickling’[30] being the most intimate and erotic form of teasing.

The teasing qualities of The Eve of St. Agnes similarly troubled some of Keats’s contemporaries who viewed the poem as vulgar and distasteful; Byron infamously referred to Keats’s ‘mental masturbation’.[31] G. M. Matthews places the social prejudice underlying much of the criticism against him in a wider context:

…it was more or less accepted – since Crabbe and Wordsworth had insisted on it – that the domestic emotions of the lower classes were a fit subject for poetry; but that a poet of the lower classes should play with erotic emotions was insufferable, unless these were expressed in a straightforward peasant dialect, as with Burns or Clare.[32]

Perhaps, though, the issue was not wholly linguistic as Matthews’s ‘unless’ implies. The crucial word is ‘plays’. It is Keats’s ‘play’, his teasing with erotic emotions, his willingness to risk censorship in the publication of The Eve of St. Agnes,[33] which makes him a threat to Byron’s aesthetic and social sensibilities.

Yet it is often at the edge of decorum, as Christopher Ricks has argued, that Keats achieves some of his greatest effects.[34] The success of ‘solution sweet’(l.322), which refers both to the ‘solving’ of the social-ethical problem of Madeline and Porphyro’s love, and to the mingling of the scents of rose and violet, depends upon the tightness with which the diction skirts a punning, coy periphrasis for the sexual act. He takes similar risks in most of the major poems: the slang sense of ‘tease’, for instance, in Ode on a Grecian Urn; the girlish locution of ‘bosom-friend’, intensified by the effusive and redundant ‘close’ in To Autumn,[35] which jars against the genteel and classical personifications; and the amusing conceit in Ode to a Nightingale of the ‘musk rose’ as a noisy tavern which flies ‘haunt’ in summer for their evening drink of ‘dewy-wine’(ll.49-50). Teasing implicitly involves risk since the part being teased may not appreciate the gentle scratching of his of her image of themselves and may see the joke as a presumptuous intrusion. Geoffrey Hill comments on the perilously delicate nature of raillery, a form of teasing, in the early eighteenth-century:

…the point would seem to be that, notwithstanding the precise distinctions between fine raillery and coarse insult, mistakes were frequently made, even by skilled practitioners. It may seem that infringements occurred through the necessity to turn in small tight circles of mutual exacerbation and the obligation to demonstrate superior skill. [36]

Keats himself saw nothing funny in the hoaxing of his brother Tom by their mutual friend, Wells, in the ‘Amena Bellefila’ episode. His extreme rage against Wells, who had duped Tom by sending him love-letters from a fictitious ‘Amena Bellefila’ might strike us with surprise given Keats’s own fondness for teasing, impersonation,[37] and his patience and self-control in the face of other trying problems. Bad health, the inevitable pain of sorting through his dead brother’s possessions, and the pique that the letters parodied the style and subject-matter of his early poetry, do not entirely account for this unusual outburst of anger:

I have been looking over the correspondence of the pretended Amena and Wells this evening–I now see the whole cruel deception–I think Wells must have had an accomplice in it–Amena’s Letters are in a Man’s Language, and in a Man’s hand imitating a woman’s–The instigations to this diabolical scheme were vanity, and the love of intrigue. It was no thoughtless hoax–but a cruel deception on a sanguine Temperament, with every show of friendship. I do not think death too bad for the villain–The world would look upon it in a different light should I expose it–they would call it a frolic–so I must be wary - but I consider it my duty to be prudently revengeful. I will hang over his head like a sword by a hair. I will be opium to his vanity–if I cannot injure his interests–He is a rat and he shall have ratsbane to his vanity–I will harm him all I possibly can…


There seem to be two aspects of Well’s hoax which enrage Keats. Firstly, it is a premeditated plan, a ‘diabolical scheme’, involving in his view ‘an accomplice’ (the language of fraud and homicide), which has no mitigating excuse (‘it was no thoughtless hoax’), and which was designed to inflict pain on an already suffering and, by nature, innocently vulnerable Tom. Secondly, the tease disgusts because Wells expects no reciprocal affections or humorous interchange. His motives are purely selfish (‘vanity, and the love of intrigue’). It is ‘a cruel deception on a sanguine temperament’ - in contrast to the ‘marble men’ of art, Tom, emotionally open and generous, is easily blooded. Keats’s recognition that others less intimately acquainted with Tom would see the action as a ‘frolic’ suggests the same sensitivity to the complex social and psychological map of teasing we find in Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Keats appears to have imagined for Tom his pain and bewilderment at being so cruelly teased in La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a poem written in the same letter as the recounting of the ‘Amena Bellefila’ episode. What ails the knight-at-arms would be recognisable by George and Georgiana. He is ‘pale’, ‘woe-begone’, tubercular:


I see death’s lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever-dew


And on they cheeks death’s fading rose
Fast Withereth too-


The description of the Lady fits what we know of ‘Amena Bellefila’: ‘in the meads’, ‘made sweet moan’ and ‘manna dew’(l.13;20;26) possibly echo ‘Amena’, and ‘Full beautiful’ half-translates, half-puns on ‘Bellefila’, a hybrid of French and Italian. Just as Amena’s letters are ‘in a Man’s language, and in a Man’s hand imitating a woman’s’, so the Lady ‘in language strange’ says ‘I love thee true’(ll.27-28). Like Amena, she proves a dangerous chimera with a magical but false ‘fairy’s song’(l.24). At the end of this letter-poem he anticipates his brother and sister-in-law’s inevitable concern for his own health, since they would notice the ‘I’ of the poem and know how rapidly tuberculosis can spread. He treats the poem as if it were merely a light-hearted jeu d’esprit, adopting the playful tone of the early epistolary poems:

Why four kisses–you will say–why four because I wish to restrain the headlong impetuosity of my Muse – she would have fain said ‘score’ without hurting the rhyme–but we must temper the Imagination, as the Critics say with Judgement…Suppose I had said seven; there would have been three and a half apiece–a very awkward affair–and well got out of on my side…


His humour, here, is engaging because there is something strangely specific about ‘kisses four’ in such an uncertain, dream-like poem, and because the ballad form partly invites a light, jaunty approach. The confident lightness allows him to speak of the character of the Lady as if she were real while making it evident that she is not. The intractable ambiguity of her status fits the ‘Amena Bellefila’ influence. Keats’s tease is imaginatively alive to George and Georgiana’s likely anxiety and it enables him, for their sakes, to ‘get out of’ the ‘very awkward affair’ of either explaining the darker aspects of the poem or leaving them to brood in tense silence.

Reading the ‘Medusa’ narrative in the second canto of Don Juan on his final voyage to Italy, Keats was again provoked into fury of the ‘Amena Bellefila’ scale. Joseph Severn described what happened:

Keats threw down the book & exclaimed, ‘this gives me the most horrid idea of human nature, that a man like Byron should have exhausted all the pleasures of the world so completely that there was nothing left for him but to laugh & gloat over the most solemn & heart rending since [scenes] of human misery this storm of his is one of the most diabolical attempts ever made upon our sympathies, and I have no doubt it will fascenate thousands into extreem obduracy of heart–the tendency of Byron’s poetry is based on a paltry originality, that of being new by making solemn things gay & gay things solemn’. [38]

Keats knows he is being teased and does not like it. Like Wells, whose ‘vanity, and love of intrigue’ feed off Tom’s vulnerability, Byron can only ‘laugh & gloat’ at others’ suffering. ‘One of the most diabolical attempts ever made upon our sympathies’ recalls Wells’s ‘diabolical scheme’, and the distrust of public opinion echoes his earlier pessimism when considering a wider moral consensus: ‘the world would…call it a frolic’.

Perhaps it was something like canto II. LXXVII which made Keats throw down Don Juan in disgust:

The surgeon, as there was no other fee,
Had his first choice of morsels for his pains;
But being thirstiest at the moment, he
Preferred a draught from the fast-flowing veins:
Part was divided, part thrown in the sea,
And such things as the entrails and the brains
Regaled two sharks, who followed o’er the billow –
The sailors ate the rest of poor Pedrillo.

The tone is cruel and the apparent indifference derives partly from the disparity between the physicality of the narrative and the polished, insouciant narrative style. What shocks is the matter-of-fact presentation of cannibalism as an ordinary meal: the circumlocutions of ‘Had his first choice of morsels’, ‘Preferred a draught from the fast-flowing veins’ and ‘Part was divided’, preparing us for the starkness of ‘ate’ in the final line. ‘Preferred’ evokes the pleasure of a diner choosing from a choice of delicacies placed before him, and discarding ‘such things as entrails and the brains’ suggests an affluent host casually dispatching scraps from the table to waiting dogs. For Keats, the self-conscious cleverness of ‘Part was divided, part thrown into the sea’ (the line is itself divided into two equal syllabic parts), and the ostentatious inadequacy of ‘poor Pedrillo’, must have seemed callous gloating – and no more than that.

Byron’s teasing, however, is as complex as Keats thinks it cruel. His ‘attempts…upon our sympathies’ differ from Keats’s not just in their political baiting, non-reciprocal hauteur and catch-me-if-you-can obscenities, but in their subtle ‘mixing-up’ of the ethical with the social as an integral part of the tease. In Don Juan II. LXXVII, the tease works precisely because it sounds so like laughing and gloating. The reader who claims that Byron is merely laughing and gloating is challenged by the verse to imagine a style which could adequately describe the historical reality of nineteenth-century sailors eating each other. It is not cruel, nor absurd, to imagine how, even in such an appalling situation, social conventions still govern human behaviour. Although this is partly a satirical attack on the contemporary medical profession, the surgeon does deserve some kind of payment for his service to the others – as the rest of the crew recognise since the bland cliché ‘for his pains’ also points to the anguish the surgeon endures as he bleeds a healthy shipmate to death. The verse suggests something both comically and terrifyingly true about social interaction and potential hardness of heart. Byron’s reader must tacitly acknowledge that he, like the sharks, is being ‘regaled’ – not on the physical flesh of the sailors, but by their story.

For Keats the ideal art object teases us lightly and provokes interruptions to our judgement; it keeps us guessing. In his view, Byron despises his reader’s guesswork; and so does Well’s hoax. Keats, however, wants to tease his reader, help him into Negative Capability. Perhaps the most useful contemporary theoretical contrast to Keats’s literary ideal is Barthes’s ‘strip-tease’ model of narrative whereby ‘we do not read everything with the same intensity of reading; a rhythm is established, casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text…impel[ling] us to skim or skip certain passages’. It is of the nature of strip-tease and Barthes’s ‘classic narrative’ model that the act or relationship should terminate at a given point. Keats’s teasing, by contrast does not invite a final resolution of ‘fact and reason’ but aims at a state of continuous, reciprocal engagement. In The Eve of St. Agnes there is no Barthesian ‘solution of the riddle’ but a teasingly irresolute ‘solution sweet’, Madeline is not laid bare but remains ‘Half-ridden, like a mermaid in sea-weed’, and instead of what Barthes calls a ‘revelation of fate’ the two lovers flee into a storm and another story.[40] Negative Capability involves the ability to re-experience and continue a dialogue. Hence Keats’s sense of wonder at the power of certain literary works repeatedly to hold his attention. On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer expresses the spontaneous thrill of a new discovery which promises further riches (the emphasis being on ‘First’ ), and This Pleasant Tale is like a Little Copse tells how Chaucer’s ‘honied lines do freshly interlace, / To keep the reader in so sweet a place’.

Keats’s reading of King Lear indicates that he was far from ‘unconcerned with the integrity of the text’, and that he was not impelled to skim or skip certain passages through his ‘avidity of knowledge’. The play has deep personal resonances for him: he circled the words ‘Poor Tom’ in his Folio text, dating the mark ‘Sunday Evening Oct. 4. 1818’ – two months before his brother died of tuberculosis. His sense of the play’s ‘intensity’(LJK,I.192), its irresistible, inexplicable pull, shows itself in his introduction of the poem to George and Tom (LJK,I.214): ‘…I sat down yesterday to read King Lear once again and the thing appeared to demand the prologue of a Sonnet’ (my emphasis). His repeated ‘once again…once more’ suggests, too, his sense of the play’s teasing compulsion:

…once again, the fierce dispute,
Betwixt Damnation and impassioned Clay
Must I burn through; once more humbly assay
The bitter-sweet of this Shakespeareian fruit.


R. S. White points to the reciprocity of the exchange: ‘"Must I burn through" is not only determined and positive but also rings of passive submission, repeated in "once more humbly assay". He must be burned, as well as burn.’ [41]

In the final months of his life, distressed and frustrated with financial and career worries, Keats’s irritation with unsympathetic teasing took a more personal turn. His continued isolation from Fanny and the recognition that their hopes for the future could never be realised, understandably exacerbated his possessive instincts. Fanny’s ‘minx-like’ qualities and, in contrast to Keats, her emotional independence, may have strengthened his sense of her indifference. In the letters of 1820 he expresses his fears of her being ‘a little inclined to the Cressid’(LJK,II.256), refuses to accept that she can both enjoy herself at a party and maintain her wholehearted love for himself, and accuses her of emotional infidelity:

When you were in the habit of flirting with Brown you would have left off, could your own heart have felt one half of one pang mine did… Do not write to me if you have done anything this month which it would have pained me to have seen…I cannot live without you, and not only you, but chaste you; virtuous you… Be serious! Love is not a plaything…


Keats demands from Fanny the same imaginative perception that he had earlier shown for Tom in La Belle Dame sans Merci. His appeal ‘could your own heart have felt one half of one pang mine did’ implies, however, the limits of the aesthetic pleasure in imaginative non-reciprocity he had delighted in with the Highland girls: ‘I was extremely gratified to think, that if I had pleasure they knew nothing of they had also some into which I could not possibly enter.’ I cry your mercy–pity – love! – aye, love, addressed to Fanny, echoes the fears of La Belle Dame sans Merci with its plea for a ‘Merciful love that tantalises not’(l.2) in the manner of the Lady ‘sans Merci’, who provides food which is never eaten, and whose unfulfilled promises of love prove the opposite of Keats’s ideal as expressed in the poem to Fanny: a love ‘One-thoughted, never-wand’ring, guileless’(l.3). Both poems show a fear of being ‘tantalised’ in the original sense of the word. In the later poem Keats demands a ‘guileless’ love, / Unmask’d, and being seen– without a blot!’; in La Belle Dame sans Merci he emphasises the knight’s visual perception of the Lady: her ‘wild, wild eyes’ are mentioned twice,[42] the lady ‘look’d at [the knight] as she did love’(l.19), and the knight’s vision of future torment has a strong visual dimension: he ‘saw pale kings, and princes too, / Pale warriors…their starv’d lips in the gloam, / With horrid warning gaped wide’(ll.37-42). Keats’s dislike of teasing on the visual level – ‘Do not write to me if you have done anything this month which it would have pained me to have seen’ – may be because teasing in this form, flirting for instance, is difficult both to ignore and do anything about as it usually happens in a social situation. ‘Tantalises not’ contrasts, too, with Endymion’s world of actualised Negative Capability: his ‘half-graspable’ delights, in which strange, beautiful women ‘melt from his grasp’(Endyn,IV.503-10). In I cry your mercy…, Keats sees no pleasure in ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’; he cannot ‘remain content with half-knowledge’. He does not want to be ‘teased out of thought’:


O, let me have thee whole, - all,- all -be mine!
…Yourself–your soul–in pity give me all,
Withhold no atom’s atom or I die.


This is neither a radical inconsistency nor hypocrisy. Keats presents Negative Capability as a profound ideal in an aesthetic realm: it is a quality of ‘a Man of Achievement especially in Literature’, and one which may have limited value in the world of experience. The gap between the aesthetic and the experiential suggests how high the ideal is. In life as well as in poetry Keats knew that Negative Capability may be easier said than done.




1 Rollins, ed. (1958), ‘To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 (?) December 1817’, I.193-4; all subsequent references to this edition, abbreviated to LJK, are incorporated in the text.

2 See Bate (1963), pp.242-63; Bate (1981), pp.228-92. For an excellent discussion of Hazlitt’s impact on Keats and the notion of Negative Capability, see Natarajan (1998), pp.107-119;179;190.

3 See Roe (1997) whose historicist reading of Keats draws attention to the ‘social inflection of negative capability’, p.236; Mizukoshi (2001) suggests that Keats’s ‘theory of Beauty was really a version of Hunt’s bourgeois aesthetics, in light of which the Negative Capability appears to be a means of sensory, rather than logical, cognition’,p.144.

4 McGann (1985), p.59.

5 Stillinger, ed. (1978), Endymion in The Poems of John Keats, Book IV.ll.439-447; all subsequent references, abbreviated to PJK, or referred to by the title of an individual piece, are incorporated in the text. Endymion abbreviated to Endyn.

6 Abbreviated to OED hereafter.

7 See for example Endymion I.431, 701, 812, 955; II.102, 230, 411; III.380-2, 963, 1016; IV.41, 655, 749.

8 Endymion would be the ideal reader of the poem, since most critics have found his paradoxical pleasure in illusion masquerading as reality, in melancholy, and in pain of frustrated anticipation, a less releasing experience, regarding Endymion as structurally chaotic.

9 Hobsbaum (1965), pp.1-7, offers an excellent account of the major interpretations of the poem’s closing two lines.

10 Barnard, ed. (1973), p.651.

11 For Keats’s familiarity with Tristram Shandy see JKL,I.245;II.186;II.245.

12 ‘Sermon 44: The Ways of Providence Justified to Man’ in New, M. ed. (1995), IV, p.415.

13 Howe, ed. (1930-4),V. p.11.

14 Words which echo Hazlitt’s description of Greek statues: ‘By their beauty they are raised above the frailties of passion or suffering’: ibid.

15 Levinson (1988), p.9.

16 H. E. Rollins (1948), I. lxxii, notes that Keats addressed Clarke, seven years his senior, as ‘"My daintie, Davie", "C.C.C." and (twice) "My dear Charles", whereas he addressed all his other male friends by their surnames’, - this intimates the basis of friendship on which such an innuendo succeeds.

17 The idea of teasing pervades the narrative of the Faerie Queene: Braggadocchio (BookII,canto3);sexual teasing in the fountain scene in the Bower of Bliss (BookII,canto12); and the love triangle between Hellenore, Malbecco, and Paridell (Book III,cantos9-10).

18 Chapman, ed. (1932-34), vol. 4, book 1, p.114.

19 Ibid., vol. 4, book 2, p.292.

20 The OED does not record the literal meaning before 1834 though Keats seems to be using this sense in Ode on a Grecian Urn (1820). He may be remembering Spenser’s description of the Bower of Bliss in the Faerie Queene II, Canto XII: ‘ a fountaine… Most goodly it with curious imageree / Was ouer-wrought’ – see Hamilton, ed. (1977), p.292.

21 Bate (1963), p.428.

22 Coleridge, ed. (1905), p.117.

23 Lines 3 and 20.

24 See the Barnard edition pp.628-9.

25 Rollins, ed. (1948), I. p.89.

26 Wu (1996), discusses the addition of the final stanza within the context of Byron and Keats’s fascinating relationship.

27 Chandler (1998), reads in Keats a complex inter-relationship between smokeability and negative capability, one which informs his argument for negative capability’s ‘recontextualization [in 1819] within a kind of self-conscious realism about power and predation.’ See p.402.

28 See Ridley (1963), pp. 96-190 for further discussion.

29 Empson (1995), pp.51-56.

30 Sherburn, ed. (1956), I. p.211.

31 Matthews (1971), p.129.

32 Ibid., p.35.

33 Cf. The undressing of Madeline in stanza twenty-six and the consummation of the two lovers in stanza thirty-six.

34 Ricks (1974).

35 Compare Thackeray’s ‘she had twelve intimate and bosom friends out of the twenty-four young ladies’, in Carey (2001), p.10.

36 Hill (1984), p.74-5.

37 For example, in the letters is his stylistic mimicry of legal language (I.184); Anne Radcliffe (I.245); Sterne (I.245); Richardson (I.394); Smollett (II. 175); dialects (I.251 - ‘Where be ye going, you devon Maid?’; I.327 - ‘Ah! ken ye what I met the day); and Mediæval English (II.204 ).

38 Rollins, ed. (1948), II. pp.134-5.

39 Coleridge, ed. (1905), p.813.

40 Miller (1975), p.10-11.

41 White (1987), p.23.

42 Lines 16 and 31.