An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Of Negative Capacitance And Nightingale

Posted by xbanguyen on September 20, 2009

Literature Blogs
The trinity of passive circuit elements have descriptive names: resistor,  inductor, and capacitor -- the resistor resists current flow, the inductor stores energy in a magnetic field and uses this energy to induce current, the capacitor is capable of holding electrical charge.  The capability of a capacitor, or its capacitance, is the amount of electric charge it is capable of storing.  As a passive element, a capacitor is charged by the voltage applied.   A less well-known fact is that not all capacitors are passive.  In fact, the capacitor used in an operational amplifier configured as a negative impedance converter in an astable multivibrator has negative capacitance and functions as a source, not a passive load.

Negative capability is also a quality that characterizes John Keats whose Ode to the Nightingale has provided much uneasy pleasure to generations of poetry readers, myself included.


O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Keats wrote these lines one spring morning sitting under a plum tree in a friend's garden in England as he listened to a nightingale singing its deathless song.  The poem confirms the poet's negative capability, the ability to negate one's self to enter the state of being of others to speak of and for them.  He left his "sole self" to travel with the nightingale through time -- the poem invokes summer, not spring - and space - sunny Provence, not drab England -- to articulate its joyful song even though he himself was in pain.  The tension between  pleasure and pain  in the poem is palpable.  The nightingale's immortality accentuates my awareness of the poet's short life.   As you know, Keats died of tuberculosis when he was twenty six.


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