Isabella: or The Pot of Basil: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism of Isabella: or The Pot of Basil

The poem contains examples of religious imagery, as in l.2 with a reference to ‘palmer’ or pilgrim. Just as the pilgrim seeks a shrine where he may worship God, so Lorenzo needs a woman to worship, through whom he may worship Love. In l.64 Keats uses the word ‘shrive’, i.e. confess. Just as the pilgrim cannot be at peace until he has confessed his sins and has received absolution, so Lorenzo feels the necessity of confessing his love.

Notice how the repetition of the same words in l. 83-4 helps the reader to feel the unchanging nature of their devotion and joy in one another.

Notice also the effect of the two extended similes in stanza 34 and the way that they enable the reader to feel Isabella’s anguish. She is roused from the lethargy of despair and endowed with almost supernatural energy and willpower as she sees a vision of her murdered lover.

Some readers have seen the visit of Lorenzo’s ghost and Isabella’s exhumation of her lover’s body and strange cultivation of his head as symbolizing the loss of love, pleasure and beauty which results from the pressures of social and economic demands.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Isabella: or The Pot of Basil...

  • What other examples can you find of Keats’ use of religious imagery in the poem?
    • What is the effect of this type of imagery?
  • How do the similes in stanza 34 work?
    • Look in detail at the way in which the words enable the reader to feel Isabella’s anguish.
  • Do you agree that the imagery associated with Lorenzo’s appearance as a ghost and with the exhumation of his head is part of the poem’s ‘poignant longing to escape reality’?

Themes of Isabella: or The Pot of Basil

In common with The Eve of St Agnes, one of the poem’s chief themes is the contrast of cold hatred and concern for family honour with the warmth and passion of young love.

Isabella’s brothers are ruthless capitalists and Keats lists their mines and factories, their cruelties and the poor people they exploit (such as the naked Ceylon diver). They are in love with ‘red-lined accounts’ and are the epitome of pride. Keats may have derived such disdain for these money-graspers from letters which the enlightened manufacturer Robert Owen wrote to The Examiner. These were printed by Leigh Hunt, along with Hunt’s own editorials attacking those who put profit above their concern for human happiness. Hunt wrote:

So completely has this country been spoiled by the appetite of money-getting, so completely has it taken leave of the real virtues and happy and natural pleasures of its ancestors, - so badly and with so many perversions even of terms themselves does avarice educate its worshippers, - so fatally do they confound industry with unceasing toil, leisure with idleness, pleasure (which is a part of virtue) with vice, an unhappy cunning with wisdom, their own false and superfluous gains with necessity and real profit, and yet at the same time the very necessity of others with superfluity, - that it is become necessary to ring the commonest and most obvious truths in their ears in order to waken them out of their feverish absurdities.

Investigating themes in Isabella: or The Pot of Basil...

  • Do you agree that a central theme of the poem is the vitality of young love as opposed to the aridity of material greed?
  • What does the poem suggest about the way in which human beings should treat each other?
  • Is it enough, do you think, to see the poem as simply one which sets good against bad?
    • If ‘good versus bad’ is one thematic contrast in the poem, what others can you find?
  • To what extent do Isabella and Lorenzo rise above the rules of society and to what extent do they obey its codes?
  • Some readers have criticised the poem for making the brothers too inhumane and Lorenzo too gentle. Do you think this contrast strengthens or weakens the poem?
  • Do you think Keats is less concerned in this poem with what happens than on what the characters think and feel about what happens to them?
    • Is this a strength or a weakness of the poem?
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