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Celebrating the Mysterious and Living Your Way Into the Answer: Letters from Keats and Rilke

The romantics are easy to love and hard to let go.

Anything you’re tested on usually steals part of the joy, and most of us are tested on The Romantics if we’re given any dose of English poetry at all. Performing an exegesis on “Ode to a Nightingale” in graduate school, as I did, felt like unnecessary surgery. Speaking of surgery, Keats passed up a chance to follow his father into medical school. Even if he had he wouldn’t have been any the wiser on Tuberculosis, the disease he died from at 25, and the way it was contracted–through the air and from his dying younger brother.

I had to be prepared for “comprehensive” test questions on “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “To Autumn,” and I’m still not exactly sure what Keats means by, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I have an inkling that it’s about the very thing that we do to the poems and poets. We try to do what Keats argues against. We seek certainty, especially through the intellect. Who knows what was going through Keats’ mind. It was a long time ago. His contemporary, Coleridge (also born in October 1795), wanted to resist reducing things into definite answers as well. At least Coleridge would live to 61 in spite of his infamous an ongoing laudanum use.

As Keats defines the idea in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, dated December 21, 1817, Negative Capability is the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity. The single most emblematic phrase of his entire surviving correspondence, even though he only makes mention of it once. You can find it in Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends (free as a kindle ebook and also of course in public domain).

Maria Popova writes that the concept of Negative Capability “is a beautiful articulation of a familiar sentiment — that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

Speaking of letters, man of letters and gifted poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a series of remarkable responses between 1903 and 1908 to a young would-be poet on poetry and on surviving as a sensitive observer in a harsh world. It’s fascinating to also consider what was going on in Rilke’s own life as he wrote the letters. You can find it in Letters to a Young Poet.

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Although more known as “mystic” and “existential,” and “a transitional figure between traditional and modernist writers,” I think Rilke was a romantic at heart. But the world was a different place 90 years after the passing of Keats in 1912. That was the same year Rilke began to learn about psychoanalysis from his lifetime correspondence with Lou Andreas-Salomé who studied with Freud.

Two poets from different centuries speaking to us now in ours. One of my favorite quotes comes from Voltaire (born a century before Keats). “Uncertainty may be uncomfortable. But certainty is ridiculous.”

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