Isabella: or The Pot of Basil: Synopsis and commentary

Synopsis of Isabella: or The Pot of Basil

Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman HuntThe story is set in Florence. Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, a young man employed by her family. Her proud brothers are concerned only about family honour, wanting her to marry a rich noble, so they murder Lorenzo and bury his body in the forest. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a vision and tells her the story of what has happened to him. Guided by the ghost, Isabella discovers the body, digs it up and cuts off the head, burying it in a pot which she plants with basil.

Moistened by Isabella’s tears, the plant flourishes – but Isabella herself wastes away, consumed by grief. The brothers’ suspicions are aroused and they steal the pot. Their examination of its contents leads to the discovery of Lorenzo’s rotting head. Horrified, they flee from Florence. Now deprived both of her lover and the pot of basil, Isabella goes mad and dies.

Commentary on Isabella: or The Pot of Basil

The poem was written in March 1818 and is based on a tale in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (Day 4, Novel 5). The closeness of Keats’ poem to Boccaccio’s original can be seen from this extract:

Nor had she dug long, before she found the body of her hapless lover, whereon as yet there was no trace of corruption or decay; and thus she saw without any manner of doubt that her vision was true. And so, saddest of women, knowing that she might not bewail him there, she would gladly, if she could, have carried away the body and given it more honourable sepulture elsewhere; but as she might not so do, she took a knife, and, as best she could, severed the head from the trunk, and wrapped it in a napkin and laid it in the lap of her maid; and having covered the rest of the corpse with earth, she left the spot, having been seen by none, and went home. There she shut herself up in her room with the head, and kissed it a thousand times in every part, and wept long and bitterly over it, till she had bathed it in her tears. She then wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and set it in a large and beautiful pot of the sort in which marjoram or basil is planted, and covered it with earth, and therein planted some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno, and drenched them only with her tears, or water perfumed with roses or orange-blossoms. And 'twas her wont ever to sit beside this pot, and, all her soul one yearning, to pore upon it, as that which enshrined her Lorenzo, and when long time she had so done, she would bend over it, and weep a great while, until the basil was quite bathed in her tears.

(See Further reading and resources > Source material for Isabella, or The Pot of Basil for more extensive extracts.)

Keats was not entirely happy about this poem. He said in a letter dated September 22 1819:

There is too much inexperience of life, and simplicity of knowledge in it … Isabella is what I should call were I a reviewer ‘A weak-sided Poem’ with an amusing sober-sadness about it…’

The poem consequently underwent several revisions. 


Stanzas 1-8

palmer: Medieval pilgrims often went to the holy land, bringing back a palm leaf as a token of their visit, hence the term ‘palmer’.

rill: stream

vespers: prayers, specifically those offered at the monastic service of Vespers, held in the early evening

boon: blessing

doom: Old English term for judgement, frequently applied to the concept of the final judgement, the day at the end of the world on which the 'doom' ' fate or judgement' of all creatures will be decreed by God.

Stanzas 9-16

poesied: ‘made poetry with’

zephyr: In classical mythology, the west wind. In pastoral poetry, any gentle breeze

Theseus' spouse: Ariadne, who was deserted by Theseus after saving his life and left her home for him

Dido: Queen of Carthage, whom Aeneas, in his wanderings, wooed and wanted to marry - but the gods ordered him to leave her

Silent ... undergrove: In Book 6 of The Aeneid Virgil describes the moment when Aeneas catches sight of Dido in Hades and speaks to her in pity. However, Dido does not answer. Instead she turns towards Lychaeus, her former husband, and it is he who comforts her.

almsmen: the bees are like Medieval charity workers, collecting whatever alms can be spared

rich-ored driftings: metal ore was often discovered by panning in river beds

the Ceylon diver: pearl divers from modern-day Sri Lanka

racks: instruments of torture which stretched out their victims

lazar: a leper, or any wretched beggar

red-lin'd accounts: referring to the neatly drawn red lines of an account book - with perhaps a suggestion of the human blood which has been spilled in order to make profits for the brothers

songs of Grecian years: Enlightenment writers held the poetry of classical Greece in high regard. 

Stanzas 17-24

Florentines: natives of Florence in Italy, which was renowned for the prosperity of its bankers during the Middle Ages

close Hebrews: anti-semitic prejudice characterised Jews as mean (‘close’) and avaricious

paled in: a ‘pale’ was an enclosed, often guarded territory

ducats: Italian money

cat’s-paws: a term referring to a person who does another’s dirty deeds

Hot Egypt's pest: the narrator wishes one of the plagues of Egypt on them – presumably that of darkness.

ghittern: an instrument like a guitar, strung with wire

atone: to pay for/ recompense.

Stanzas 25-32

Apennine: a mountain ridge that goes down the spine of Italy

rosary: a string of beads used to help in the saying of the Rosary, a prayer involving repeated recitation

matin-song: a hymn sung at Matins, a service of worship held before dawn or in the morning

Arno: the river which runs through Florence

freshets: little streams of fresh water

tease: torment

stifling: This has both a literal and a metaphorical meaning. i.The widow's dress is tightly fitting and ii. The acceptance of fate stifles complaint.

rude: rough

roundelay: a dance in a circle.

Stanzas 33-40

Hinnom's Vale: the valley of Moloch's sacrifices (see Paradise Lost,i. 392-405)

shroud: A covering, most especially a simple garment for a dead body, often white or pale grey

pall: Cloth spread over a coffin

palsied Druid: The Druids, or priests of ancient Britain, were usually depicted as old men with long beards; this one is also sick.

sepulchral: suitable for a tomb

woof: archaic term for weft or web (i.e. of intrigue)

knelling: Every sound is like a death knell (tolling of a bell) to him.

Seraph: the highest order of angel.

Stanzas 41-48

forest hearse: To Isabella, the whole forest has become the vehicle which contains her lover’s corpse.

champaign: country (from the French)

funeral stole: another term for shroud

hoar: grey coloured, like something covered in hoar-frost.

Stanzas 49-56

plaining: lament

Persean sword: The sharp sword which Hermes gave to Perseus and with which he cut off the head of the Gorgon Medusa (a monster with the face of a woman but with snakes for hair). To look on Medusa's face was to be turned to stone. Perseus escaped by looking only at her reflection in his shield.

Araby: archaic term for Arabia, regarded as an exotic place

serpent-pipe: twisted pipe

Sweet Basil: a fragrant aromatic plant

O Echo: the narrator addresses the Greek nymph Echo.

Lethean: river of forgetfulness in Hades, the dark underworld of the dead.

Cypress: Dark trees planted in Italian cemeteries

Melpomene: the Muse of tragedy.

Stanzas 57-63

Baalites of pelf: worshippers of ill-gotten gains, after the pagan deity mentioned in the Bible, Baal

dower: dowry, an amount of money or goods given as part of a marriage contract

chapel-shrift: confession in a church or chapel

guerdon: archaic term for prize

burthen: refrain.

Investigating commentary on Isabella: or The Pot of Basil...

  • Compare the extract from Boccaccio’s Decameron with the passage in Keats’ poem to which it relates.
    • What do you think are the most interesting similarities and differences?
  • How do you think this poem compares with The Eve of St Agnes?
  • Keats said about this poem: ‘There is too much inexperience of life, and simplicity of knowledge in it…’ What evidence would you select to justify agreeing with his opinion?
  • What evidence would you select to justify disagreeing with his opinion?
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