Isabella: or The Pot of Basil: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Isabella: or The Pot of Basil

A mixture of tones

The poem is something of an experiment for Keats and is a mixture of poignant, romantic tragedy on the one hand and a rather dry, distanced narrative tone on the other. As well as a heart-felt sympathy for the victims of the brothers’ greed, there is a fascination with gory details, as when the brothers unearth Lorenzo’s head ‘vile with green and livid spot’. The poem is also full of gothic excess and over-theatrical lamentations, as when Melancholy is apostrophised either to ‘linger here awhile’ or to ‘turn [its] eyes away’. It is perhaps not surprising that Keats came to see the poem as ‘mawkish’.

Suggestive details

Keats’ account of the brothers’ ruthless pursuit of money is vividly conveyed in his suggestive use of language. Their ‘red-lin’d accounts brings to mind their neat account books at the same time as suggesting the human blood for which their accumulation of wealth was responsible. ‘Gainful cowardice’ sharply communicates the dread of loss which haunts the wealthy brothers. Keats also uses the image of ‘hawks of ship-mast forests’ to suggest that, just as birds of prey pounce on their prey, so the brothers fell rapaciously on the trading vessels which put into port.

Lorenzo’s death

The murder of Lorenzo is handled by Keats with great skill. Lines 173-4

                          these men of cruel clay
Cut Mercy with a sharp knife to the bone;

not only describes the banishment of the brothers’ natural pity, but also focuses our attention on the means of Lorenzo’s death.

This vivid foreshadowing continues memorably in stanza 27 with its opening line: ‘So the two brothers and their murder’d man’, the past participle ‘murdered’ forcing the reader to see both the living man and the corpse at the same time. The imagery is sharp and shocking. It is a quiet, rural scene into which the basest human passions have intruded. The pale murderers are reflected in the clear water of the Arno whilst the face of Lorenzo, their unsuspecting victim, is ‘flush with love’.


We are told no details about the act of murder: it is merely stated, since Keats wants the effect to be one of pity rather than of horror. He intensifies the pathos in stanza 59 and its final four lines:

And when she left, she hurried back, as swift
As bird on wing to breast its eggs again;
And, patient as a hen-bird, sat her there
Beside her Basil, weeping through her hair.

The emotion is intensified by the image of the bird incubating its eggs. The contrast with Isabella’s loneliness is stark. She can no longer contemplate the wife- and mother-hood which the image suggests.

Investigating language and tone of Isabella: of The Pot of Basil...

  • Where does Keats focus most of his descriptive attention in the poem?
    • Which elements of the plot seem to be passed over with little attention to detail?
  • How does Keats use language to suggest the brothers’ obsession with money?
    • Why do you think Keats is so interested in their pride and greed?
  • What seems most striking to you about the way in which Keats describes Lorenzo’s murder?
  • ‘Keats wants the tone to be of pity rather than horror?’ How does Keats achieve this effect?

Structure and versification 

The story is divided into four parts: 

  • The love of Lorenzo and Isabella
  • The murder of Lorenzo by her brothers
  • Isabella’s discovery of Lorenzo’s body
  • The flight of the brothers and Isabella’s death.

In Boccaccio’s Decameron there are three brothers, as opposed to the two in Keats.

In Boccaccio there is a narrator, Philomena, whereas in Keats the narrative voice is that of the poet himself.

The form of the poem is ottava rima (see Recognising poetic form > Ottava rima), a natural choice for a poem with such a distinctively Italian setting. The form uses stanzas of eight lines each, rhyming abababcc and was much used by Italian Renaissance poets such as Tasso and Ariosto.

Although the form is strict, Keats avoids monotony by changing the places where there are pauses. Look at the punctuation marks, especially in the middle of lines, and consider how they affect the emphasis and rhythm of the stanzas. For instance, in the first line of stanza 36 there is a pause after the fourth syllable whereas in the first line of stanza 37 there are two pauses, one after the second syllable and the second after the fourth.

Investigating structure and versification of Isabella: or The Pot of Basil...

  • What part does the stanza form play in the narrative?
  • Most of the stanzas are self-contained units but occasionally Keats indicates a run-on of sense, as between stanzas 4 and 5 and between 41 and 42. What effect does this have?
  • Is the effect of the rhyme purely musical – or can you find examples of rhymes which yoke together words for other reasons?
    • Comment on some of the examples you discover
  • Go through the poem noting when Keats uses enjambement in the poem.
    • What effects does this create?
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