John Keats, selected poems Contents
- Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou
- The Eve of St Agnes
- ‘Hush, hush! tread softly! hush, hush, my dear!’
- Isabella: or The Pot of Basil
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- Lines to Fanny (‘What can I do to drive away’)
- O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell
- Ode on a Grecian Urn
- Ode on Indolence
- Ode to a Nightingale
- Ode to Autumn
- Ode to Melancholy
- Ode to Psyche
- On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
- On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
- On the Sea
- Sleep and Poetry
- Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb
- To Ailsa Rock
- To Leigh Hunt
- To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat
- To My Brothers
- To Sleep
- When I have fears that I may cease to be
Isabella: or The Pot of Basil: Synopsis and commentary
Synopsis of Isabella: or The Pot of Basil
The 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:
(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:
The poem consequently underwent several revisions.
vespers: prayers, specifically those offered at the monastic service of Vespers, held in the early evening
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.
poesied: ‘made poetry with’
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.
Florentines: natives of Florence in Italy, which was renowned for the prosperity of its bankers during the Middle Ages
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
ghittern: an instrument like a guitar, strung with wire
atone: to pay for/ recompense.
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
Arno: the river which runs through Florence
freshets: little streams of fresh water
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.
roundelay: a dance in a circle.
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.
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.
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
Lethean: river of forgetfulness in Hades, the dark underworld of the dead.
Cypress: Dark trees planted in Italian cemeteries
Melpomene: the Muse of tragedy.
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
guerdon: archaic term for prize
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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