This paper attempts to establish a parallel between John Keats’s views on poetry and the poetic self and the Christian mystical (apophatic) tradition known as Negative Theology. In particular, Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability’ and ‘vale-of-soul making’ have been given extended consideration and are compared with related concepts in negative theology such as mystical union and ecstasy. This approach throws new light on the relation between religion and literature and between Keats’s highly anti-Christian views and his highly spiritual outpourings in his poetry and letters. Though Keats rejected the ritualistic, orthodox tradition of Christianity, there is a striking resemblance between his ideas of the poetic self and creativity and the concepts and practices found in the Christian mystical tradition. Since the Christian mystical tradition is usually either not evoked in discussions of literature and culture, or dismissed as influence of neo-Platonism, the whole Romantic literary tradition is
considered to be anti-Christian and anti-religious and to derive its ‘spiritual’ doctrines from Platonism. Keat’s example shows that there were strong spiritual elements in Romanticism and that their roots go deep into a Christian religious tradition which has itself been a victim of neglect in literary studies. Some work has already been carried out in noting the relevance of the apophatic tradition to poststructuralism and this paper takes account of these developments in theological and literary research.
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