In mid-to-late 19th Century Britain, the new was sweeping powerfully in. It was an age of invention and technology and never before had so much change happened as quickly. Industrial marvels were proliferating at bewildering speed. Earlier breakthroughs had set the pace.
Now came a new and growing welter of devices and technologies that created entirely new industries.
- The Telegraph (1844)
- The sewing machine (1846)
- The elevator safety break (1853)
- Bessemer steel processing (1855)
- Invention of dynamite (1866)
- The telephone (1876)
- Vaccines such as smallpox (1870)
- The light bulb (1879)
Amid all this tumultuous change there were other less welcome effects.
The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.
Marx was referring of course to the impact that industrialisation was having on the working class. Machines were taking over the jobs that people once did, thereby robbing them of the capacity to feed themselves and their families. The age of industrialisation started in the mid 18th Century, and by the time Marx was writing his critique of the industrial society, heavy machinery had dramatically changed the world of work.
Today’s Useless People
The phrase “too many useful things” has a modern-day connotation too. The digital era of connected everything has delivered another slant on this aphorism. Today we are presented with a proliferation of devices and technologies that if we are not careful can overwhelm us, making us in turn, “useless people.”
It’s not just the external world which creates demands on our time and attention. In a recent post, Brett Kelly said this:
My ideas fall into one of three categories: 1. Stuff that’s obviously stupid and/or a waste of time (this bucket is where the vast majority come from). 2. Stuff that’s pure genius and holy crap I need to write that down right now before I forget. Naturally, these are few and far between. 3. Stuff that’s clearly flawed to some extent, but might be worth investigating down the road. That third one is the real kicker. Letting these ideas percolate is key. Sometimes, doing literally nothing with a new stroke of (apparent) wisdom is the best course of action in the moment.
He demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason, and to not seek absolute knowledge of every truth, mystery, or doubt.
John Keats’ Life
John Keats was born in London in 1795 when the industrial revolution was already powering considerable changes to society. Cities like London were swelling with a tide of people swept up in a shift of industrial emphasis that fundamentally altered the balance of occupations between town and country.
As a schoolboy, Keats distinguished himself academically, but tragedy was a constant and close companion. When he was eight years old, his father died, falling from his horse after visiting John and his brother at their boarding school. Six years later his mother also died from tuberculosis and John was left in the care of his grandmother and two guardians appointed by his late mother.
In the autumn of 1810, Keats left school and began an apprenticeship as a surgeon and apothecary. He then enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital a year later, demonstrating an apparent aptitude for medicine, by winning an early promotion to “dresser”, somewhat akin to the role a junior doctor might perform today. Everyone assumed he was now on a settled career path.
However, at the age of 21, Keats published his first poem in the Examiner, a leading liberal magazine which published it in May 1816. He was now dedicating more and more and more of his time to studying literature and he began experimenting with different verse forms, including the sonnet. He decided to quit medicine in December of the same year and concentrate on writing. In April 1817 he moved into a new home in Hampstead with two of his brothers.
Tuberculosis is known as the Keats family illness. His mother died from the disease, and Keats was now nursing his brother Tom who had contracted the illness. It is likely that John succumbed to infection during this time.
After his brother’s death in December 1819, he moved to Wentworth Place, which was owned by his friend Charles Brown. Wentworth Place is a beautifully proportioned Georgian house, set close to Hampstead Heath and it was here, in a miraculous period of a few short months in the winter of 1818-1819 that he wrote his most celebrated poems, including five of his most famous Odes.
Negative Capability – How It Shaped His Work
Keats was a prolific letter writer throughout his life. In a letter to his brother George and Tom dated 21st December 1817 first used the term ‘Negative Capability.” Negative capability is the state in which we are:
…capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason …[Being] content with half knowledge” where one trusts in the heart’s perceptions.
He wrote later:
I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.
His letters provide an example of how “negative capability” shaped his poetry. In September 1819, Keats wrote to Reynolds
How beautiful the season is now – How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it … I never lik’d the stubbled fields as much as now – Aye, better than the chilly green of spring. Somehow the stubble plain looks warm – in the same way as some pictures look warm – this struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.
The final stanza of his last great ode: “To Autumn” runs:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day, And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Keats immediate response to the scenes he observed on his walk, recorded in his letter, later emerged as powerful poetry.
As is well known, Keats’ short life ended in Rome, succumbing to tuberculosis while under the care of his friend Joseph Severn. Severn described his last moments in a letter:
Keats raves till I am in a complete tremble for him…about four, the approaches of death came on. [Keats said] ‘Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy; don’t be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.’ I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seem’d boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sank into death, so quiet, that I still thought he slept.
What Might Have Been
In his life, Keats had little reason to believe his poetry would be remembered. After his death, his reputation steadily grew, with the likes of Tennyson describing him as the most significant poet of the 19th Century. His short and tragic life, combined with the compressed timescale of his mature artistic output leave both an indelible mark and a question. What might he have gone on to achieve had he lived a longer life?
1. Let Ideas Percolate
Anchoring our ideas and allowing them to percolate as Brett Kelly suggests often produces a more profound, more nuanced response. Our minds make connections unconsciously, and by creating a space for this alchemy to work, we are adopting a wise passivity.
Doing so isn’t the same as spending time thinking about it.
Allowing the idea to sit quietly in the background without worrying about it is what Brett means. Be patient, and you’ll find that some of your best ideas will emerge more wholly formed by following this route.
2. Manage Your Reactions
It is not just the external world though that generates competing claims on our time, energy and attention – it’s also our internal world, with its ideas and emotional responses.
Creating a gap between what you experience and how you respond can pay dividends.
There are times when you will be confronted with an issue and with it an implied pressure to respond straight away. Of course, there are times when you must do so – an alarm bell sounding doesn’t require passivity. On the other hand, a constant state of trigger-happy reactivity will create an atmosphere of nervous tension around, which isn’t conducive to clear thinking in you or the people around you.
3. Build A System To Capture Your Ideas
From time to time it’s worth checking if you’re allowing sufficient time for your ideas and responses to gestate. It’s a good idea to have a system in place to capture your thoughts and store them in a way that you always be able to find them.
You can read my post about note-taking here.
4. Keep Your Most Important Goals In Sight
There are so many channels of communication and corresponding incoming traffic that rains down on us all. Without a system to manage this it will be hard for us to see what is important with the kind of clarity that creates your best work. You want to avoid becoming a “useless person” so overwhelmed with possibilities that choosing a path becomes difficult.
The best advice is to build a system that allows you to retain an oversight of your most important goals and opportunities.
5. Don’t Overthink It
Finally and paradoxically it’s also important to avoid over-analysing. There are times when something is so obviously the right solution to a problem that no further analysis is required.
It’s like the man said:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Or if you prefer, don’t over-think it.