What is potentiality?
While P.B. Shelley declared poets to be “the unacknowledged legislatures of the world,” Romanticism, especially coming from Keats, was about a certain “potentiality.” Many of us are told as youngsters that we have “enormous potential,” a euphemism for “not performing up to snuff.” There has been plenty written about “unlocking” this mysterious substance, but the concept of “potentiality” from the Romantics is far more intriguing.
“Potentiality” is the sense that there is an energy, an excitement in the moments just before stuff happens. Idleness, the poets argue, is merely the building up of such energy.
Keats’ poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, presents the reader with a still-life, a depiction of something about to happen painted on ceramic. No beauty ever fades, leaves never fall, the lovers are always about to meet, so, nothing disappoints. Art, Keats is saying, is a way of capturing that moment and letting it reverberate through time.
Keats speaks to the energy that exists in a scene that never changes, to something that is forever about to happen. This was so exciting to me as a young person with years and years ahead of me and so many avenues open to me. Now there is a tingling excitement in the idea of putting words on a page that will continue to exist. My talents, or potential talents, have not been shared much with the general public. They are in sense locked in a metal box like Schrödinger’s cat until I can carve those words into the html of the internet.
So, the potential for art is energy, but art is beautiful: the urn, Keats’ poetry, and the truth depicted.