In a letter written to Richard Woodhouse on October 27, 1818, John Keats addresses the idea of his poetic identity. According to Keats, “A poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; he has no identity…creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute-the poet has none; …he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures” (Keats 1818). Therefore, Keats views himself as a poet with no self, writing not from his own identity. In his mind:
“the poetical Character itself, (I mean that sort which, if I am anything, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) is not itself-it has no self-it is everything and nothing-It has no character”. (Keats 1818)
Keats differentiates himself from the “wordsworthian” poetic identity, establishing that he writes poetry of impersonality that “records the writer’s receptivity to the uncertainties of experience” (Greenblatt 942n9), rather than “poetry that is evidently shaped by the writer’s personal interests and beliefs” (Greenblatt 942n9). Keats defines this concept as “Negative Capability, further elaborating on its ideas in an 1817 letter to George and Thomas Keats. In order for a poet to understand reality, he must be open minded and be able to dwell on or with “uncertainties, Mysteries, [and] doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Keats 1817). Beauty overcomes the need to find definitive answers in the questions raised by poems, and two contradictory ideas can be held in the readers mind simultaneously (Greenblatt 942n9). Keats’ journey into his identity as a poet of “Negative Capability”, can be seen in his poetic works, a prime example being “Ode to a Nightingale”, one of his five odes written in the spring of 1819.
Charles Brown, a close friend and mentor to Keats, described Keats’ process of writing “Ode to a Nightingale” In the Spring of 1819, a nightingale had built her nest near his home and Keats “felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song”(Greenblatt 903n1). One morning, Keats took his chair and sat under the plum tree for a few hours, just watching and listening to the bird. Keats later returned back to the house with a few scraps of paper in his hand “containing his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale” (Greenblatt 903n1). Keats process of writing demonstrates his poetic character, diving into the natural world through feeling to produce a beautiful outcome, free from the constraints of an absolute truth.
The first stanza of the poem begins as the speaker becomes overwhelmed by the nightingale’s song. The speaker’s heart begins to race and a sense of numb pain begins to overtake his body as though “my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains one minute past” (Lines 2-3). The speaker begins to become completely overwhelmed by the song of the nightingale and forgets everything around...