I was first drawn to this poem by a painting (http://www.artmagick.com/ALLpaintings/alexander/alexander1.jpg) I saw this month in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. At first I thought it was by James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, but it turned out to be by an American painter highly influenced by him, John White Alexander (1856-1915). A full length portrait that is at once melancholy and sensuous, I immediately wondered why the title character was so attached to a pot of basil.

The painting depicts a poem by John Keats, which in turn depicted a story from Boccaccio’s Renaissance collection of tales, the Decameron. The fifth story of the fourth day of the Decameron’s 100 tales, Filomena spun a brief tale of Isabella (or Lisabetta in my translation), sister to three brothers, all rich merchants of Messina. In the employ of the brothers was a young handsome man of Pisa named Lorenzo. Soon enough, Isabella and Lorenzo began an affair which remained secret until one of the brothers spotted her sneaking into Lorenzo’s room. The merchants kept the knowledge of the affair to themselves and took Lorenzo off on a business trip, where they killed him to maintain the unblemished honor of their family. When the trio returned without him, they told Isabella they had merely sent him off on a lengthy errand. The distraught Isabella was visited in a dream by the dead Lorenzo, and she went out and dug up his body, cutting off his head as a keepsake, which she stashed in a pot of basil. When the brothers noticed that Isabella spent all day weeping over this pot of basil, they took it from her and discovered his head inside. Scared and ashamed, the brothers packed up and moved to Naples.

The story Boccaccio tells is rather sparse and matter of fact. Keats expands the emotional range of the story and tweaks some of the details, most notably changing the number of brothers to two. Boccaccio depcits the murder as a matter of honor and doesn’t seem to have any particular symphathy for any party involved. Keats, however, boils over with rage at the two “ledger-men” who cause the misery of Isabella and profit over the labor of others. Some critics have interpreted this as Keats’ contribution to the class struggle and detect a distinctly Marxist bent to his railing against the merchants.

This is not Keats’ best poem, and he realized that: “I shall persist in not publishing The Pot of Basil...There is too much inexperience of life, and simplicity of knowledge in it.” (letter to Richard Woodhouse, September 22, 1819). Written in 1818, it was published in 1820 in Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.

John Keats (17951821)

Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil
A Story from Boccaccio

FAIR Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
  Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love’s eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
  Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well         
  It soothed each to be the other by;
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

With every morn their love grew tenderer,
  With every eve deeper and tenderer still;         
He might not in house, field, or garden stir,
  But her full shape would all his seeing fill;
And his continual voice was pleasanter
  To her, than noise of trees or hidden rill;
Her lute-string gave an echo of his name,         
She spoilt her half-done broidery with the same.

He knew whose gentle hand was at the latch,
  Before the door had given her to his eyes;
And from her chamber-window he would catch
  Her beauty farther than the falcon spies;         
And constant as her vespers would he watch,
  Because her face was turn’d to the same skies;
And with sick longing all the night outwear,
To hear her morning-step upon the stair.

A whole long month of May in this sad plight         
  Made their cheeks paler by the break of June:
“To morrow will I bow to my delight,
  “To-morrow will I ask my lady’s boon.”—
“O may I never see another night,
  “Lorenzo, if thy lips breathe not love’s tune.”—         
So spake they to their pillows; but, alas,
Honeyless days and days did he let pass;

Until sweet Isabella’s untouch’d cheek
  Fell sick within the rose’s just domain,
Fell thin as a young mother’s, who doth seek         
  By every lull to cool her infant’s pain:
“How ill she is,” said he, “I may not speak,
  “And yet I will, and tell my love all plain:
“If looks speak love-laws, I will drink her tears,
“And at the least ’twill startle off her cares.”         

So said he one fair morning, and all day
  His heart beat awfully against his side;
And to his heart he inwardly did pray
  For power to speak; but still the ruddy tide
Stifled his voice, and puls’d resolve away—         
  Fever’d his high conceit of such a bride,
Yet brought him to the meekness of a child:
Alas! when passion is both meek and wild!

So once more he had wak’d and anguished
  A dreary night of love and misery,         
If Isabel’s quick eye had not been wed
  To every symbol on his forehead high;
She saw it waxing very pale and dead,
  And straight all flush’d; so, lisped tenderly,
“Lorenzo!”—here she ceas’d her timid quest,         
But in her tone and look he read the rest.

“O Isabella, I can half perceive
  “That I may speak my grief into thine ear;
“If thou didst ever any thing believe,
  “Believe how I love thee, believe how near         
“My soul is to its doom: I would not grieve
  “Thy hand by unwelcome pressing, would not fear
“Thine eyes by gazing; but I cannot live
“Another night, and not my passion shrive.

“Love! thou art leading me from wintry cold,         
  “Lady! thou leadest me to summer clime,
“And I must taste the blossoms that unfold
  “In its ripe warmth this gracious morning time.”
So said, his erewhile timid lips grew bold,
  And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme:         
Great bliss was with them, and great happiness
Grew, like a lusty flower in June’s caress.

Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,
  Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
Only to meet again more close, and share         
  The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.
She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair
  Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart;
He with light steps went up a western hill,
And bade the sun farewell, and joy’d his fill.         

All close they met again, before the dusk
  Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil,
All close they met, all eves, before the dusk
  Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil,
Close in a bower of hyacinth and musk,         
  Unknown of any, free from whispering tale.
Ah! better had it been for ever so,
Than idle ears should pleasure in their woe.

Were they unhappy then?—It cannot be—
  Too many tears for lovers have been shed,         
Too many sighs give we to them in fee,
  Too much of pity after they are dead,
Too many doleful stories do we see,
  Whose matter in bright gold were best be read;
Except in such a page where Theseus’ spouse         
Over the pathless waves towards him bows.

But, for the general award of love,
  The little sweet doth kill much bitterness;
Though Dido silent is in under-grove,
  And Isabella’s was a great distress,         
Though young Lorenzo in warm Indian clove
  Was not embalm’d, this truth is not the less—
Even bees, the little almsmen of spring-bowers,
Know there is richest juice in poison-flowers.

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,         
  Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
  In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt
  In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes         
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
  And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death         
  The sealon the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
  A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.         

Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
  Gush’d with more pride than do a wretch’s tears?—
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
  Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—
Why were they proud? Because red-lin’d accounts         
  Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?

Yet were these Florentines as self-retired
  In hungry pride and gainful cowardice,         
As two close Hebrews in that land inspired,
  Paled in and vineyarded from beggar-spies,
The hawks of ship-mast forests—the untired
  And pannier’d mules for ducats and old lies—
Quick cat’s-paws on the generous stray-away,—         
Great wits in Spanish, Tuscan, and Malay.

How was it these same ledger-men could spy
  Fair Isabella in her downy nest?
How could they find out in Lorenzo’s eye
  A straying from his toil? Hot Egypt’s pest         
Into their vision covetous and sly!
  How could these money-bags see east and west?—
Yet so they did—and every dealer fair
Must see behind, as doth the hunted hare.

O eloquent and famed Boccaccio!         
  Of thee we now should ask forgiving boon,
And of thy spicy myrtles as they blow,
  And of thy roses amorous of the moon,
And of thy lilies, that do paler grow
  Now they can no more hear thy gittern’s tune,       
For venturing syllables that ill beseem
The quiet glooms of such a piteous theme.

Grant thou a pardon here, and then the tale
  Shall move on soberly, as it is meet;
There is no other crime, no mad assail         
  To make old prose in modern rhyme more sweet:
But it is done—succeed the verse or fail—
  To honour thee, and thy gone spirit greet;
To stead thee as a verse in English tongue,
An echo of thee in the north-wind sung.        

These brethren having found by many signs
  What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
  His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
That he, the servant of their trade designs,         
  Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad,
When ’twas their plan to coax her by degrees
To some high noble and his olive-trees.

And many a jealous conference had they,
  And many times they bit their lips alone,        
Before they fix’d upon a surest way
  To make the youngster for his crime atone;
And at the last, these men of cruel clay
  Cut Mercy with a sharp knife to the bone;
For they resolved in some forest dim         
To kill Lorenzo, and there bury him.

So on a pleasant morning, as he leant
  Into the sun-rise, o’er the balustrade
Of the garden-terrace, towards him they bent
  Their footing through the dews; and to him said,        
“You seem there in the quiet of content,
  “Lorenzo, and we are most loth to invade
“Calm speculation; but if you are wise,
“Bestride your steed while cold is in the skies.

“To-day we purpose, ay, this hour we mount         
  “To spur three leagues towards the Apennine;
“Come down, we pray thee, ere the hot sun count
  “His dewy rosary on the eglantine.”
Lorenzo, courteously as he was wont,
  Bow’d a fair greeting to these serpents’ whine;        
And went in haste, to get in readiness,
With belt, and spur, and bracing huntsman’s dress.

And as he to the court-yard pass’d along,
  Each third step did he pause, and listen’d oft
If he could hear his lady’s matin-song,         
  Or the light whisper of her footstep soft;
And as he thus over his passion hung,
  He heard a laugh full musical aloft;
When, looking up, he saw her features bright
Smile through an in-door lattice, all delight.         

“Love, Isabel!” said he, “I was in pain
  “Lest I should miss to bid thee a good morrow:
“Ah! what if I should lose thee, when so fain
  “I am to stifle all the heavy sorrow
“Of a poor three hours’ absence? but we’ll gain        
  “Out of the amorous dark what day doth borrow.
“Good bye! I’ll soon be back.”—“Good bye!” said she:—
And as he went she chanted merrily.

So the two brothers and their murder’d man
  Rode past fair Florence, to where Arno’s stream         
Gurgles through straiten’d banks, and still doth fan
  Itself with dancing bulrush, and the bream
Keeps head against the freshets. Sick and wan
  The brothers’ faces in the ford did seem,
Lorenzo’s flush with love.—They pass’d the water        
Into a forest quiet for the slaughter.

There was Lorenzo slain and buried in,
  There in that forest did his great love cease;
Ah! when a soul doth thus its freedom win,
  It aches in loneliness—is ill at peace         
As the break-covert blood-hounds of such sin:
  They dipp’d their swords in the water, and did tease
Their horses homeward, with convulsed spur,
Each richer by his being a murderer.

They told their sister how, with sudden speed,         
  Lorenzo had ta’en ship for foreign lands,
Because of some great urgency and need
  In their affairs, requiring trusty hands.
Poor Girl! put on thy stifling widow’s weed,
  And ’scape at once from Hope’s accursed bands;         
To-day thou wilt not see him, nor to-morrow,
And the next day will be a day of sorrow.

She weeps alone for pleasures not to be;
  Sorely she wept until the night came on,
And then, instead of love, O misery!         
  She brooded o’er the luxury alone:
His image in the dusk she seem’d to see,
  And to the silence made a gentle moan,
Spreading her perfect arms upon the air,
And on her couch low murmuring, “Where? O where?”        

But Selfishness, Love’s cousin, held not long
  Its fiery vigil in her single breast;
She fretted for the golden hour, and hung
  Upon the time with feverish unrest—
Not long—for soon into her heart a throng         
  Of higher occupants, a richer zest,
Came tragic; passion not to be subdued,
And sorrow for her love in travels rude.

In the mid days of autumn, on their eves
  The breath of Winter comes from far away,         
And the sick west continually bereaves
  Of some gold tinge, and plays a roundelay
Of death among the bushes and the leaves,
  To make all bare before he dares to stray
From his north cavern. So sweet Isabel         
By gradual decay from beauty fell,

Because Lorenzo came not. Oftentimes
  She ask’d her brothers, with an eye all pale,
Striving to be itself, what dungeon climes
  Could keep him off so long? They spake a tale       
Time after time, to quiet her. Their crimes
  Came on them, like a smoke from Hinnom’s vale;
And every night in dreams they groan’d aloud,
To see their sister in her snowy shroud.

And she had died in drowsy ignorance,         
  But for a thing more deadly dark than all;
It came like a fierce potion, drunk by chance,
  Which saves a sick man from the feather’d pall
For some few gasping moments; like a lance,
  Waking an Indian from his cloudy hall         
With cruel pierce, and bringing him again
Sense of the gnawing fire at heart and brain.

It was a vision.—In the drowsy gloom,
  The dull of midnight, at her couch’s foot
Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb        
  Had marr’d his glossy hair which once could shoot
Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom
  Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute
From his lorn voice, and past his loamed ears
Had made a miry channel for his tears.         

Strange sound it was, when the pale shadow spake;
  For there was striving, in its piteous tongue,
To speak as when on earth it was awake,
  And Isabella on its music hung:
Languor there was in it, and tremulous shake,         
  As in a palsied Druid’s harp unstrung;
And through it moan’d a ghostly under-song,
Like hoarse night-gusts sepulchral briars among.

Its eyes, though wild, were still all dewy bright
  With love, and kept all phantom fear aloof        
From the poor girl by magic of their light,
  The while it did unthread the horrid woof
Of the late darken’d time,—the murderous spite
  Of pride and avarice,—the dark pine roof
In the forest,—and the sodden turfed dell,         
Where, without any word, from stabs he fell.

Saying moreover, “Isabel, my sweet!
  “Red whortle-berries droop above my head,
“And a large flint-stone weighs upon my feet;
  “Around me beeches and high chestnuts shed         
“Their leaves and prickly nuts; a sheep-fold bleat
  “Comes from beyond the river to my bed:
“Go, shed one tear upon my heather-bloom,
“And it shall comfort me within the tomb.

“I am a shadow now, alas! alas!         
  “Upon the skirts of human-nature dwelling
“Alone: I chant alone the holy mass,
  “While little sounds of life are round me knelling,
“And glossy bees at noon do fieldward pass,
  “And many a chapel bell the hour is telling,         
“Paining me through: those sounds grow strange to me,
“And thou art distant in Humanity.

“I know what was, I feel full well what is,
  “And I should rage, if spirits could go mad;
“Though I forget the taste of earthly bliss,         
  “That paleness warms my grave, as though I had
“A Seraph chosen from the bright abyss
  “To be my spouse: thy paleness makes me glad;
“Thy beauty grows upon me, and I feel
“A greater love through all my essence steal.”         

The Spirit mourn’d “Adieu!”—dissolv’d, and left
  The atom darkness in a slow turmoil;
As when of healthful midnight sleep bereft,
  Thinking on rugged hours and fruitless toil,
We put our eyes into a pillowy cleft,         
  And see the spangly gloom froth up and boil:
It made sad Isabella’s eyelids ache,
And in the dawn she started up awake;

“Ha! ha!” said she, “I knew not this hard life,
  “I thought the worst was simple misery;         
“I thought some Fate with pleasure or with strife
  “Portion’d us—happy days, or else to die;
“But there is crime—a brother’s bloody knife!
  “Sweet Spirit, thou hast school’d my infancy:
“I’ll visit thee for this, and kiss thine eyes,         
“And greet thee morn and even in the skies.”

When the full morning came, she had devised
  How she might secret to the forest hie;
How she might find the clay, so dearly prized,
  And sing to it one latest lullaby;         
How her short absence might be unsurmised,
  While she the inmost of the dream would try.
Resolv’d, she took with her an aged nurse,
And went into that dismal forest-hearse.

See, as they creep along the river side,         
  How she doth whisper to that aged Dame,
And, after looking round the champaign wide,
  Shows her a knife.—“What feverous hectic flame
“Burns in thee, child?—What good can thee betide,
  “That thou should’st smile again?”—The evening came,         
And they had found Lorenzo’s earthy bed;
The flint was there, the berries at his head.

Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
  And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,         
  To see skull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole;
Pitying each form that hungry Death hath marr’d,
  And filling it once more with human soul?
Ah! this is holiday to what was felt
When Isabella by Lorenzo knelt.         

She gaz’d into the fresh-thrown mould, as though
  One glance did fully all its secrets tell;
Clearly she saw, as other eyes would know
  Pale limbs at bottom of a crystal well;
Upon the murderous spot she seem’d to grow,         
  Like to a native lily of the dell:
Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
To dig more fervently than misers can.

Soon she turn’d up a soiled glove, whereon
  Her silk had play’d in purple phantasies,         
She kiss’d it with a lip more chill than stone,
  And put it in her bosom, where it dries
And freezes utterly unto the bone
  Those dainties made to still an infant’s cries:
Then ’gan she work again; nor stay’d her care,         
But to throw back at times her veiling hair.

That old nurse stood beside her wondering,
  Until her heart felt pity to the core
At sight of such a dismal labouring,
  And so she kneeled, with her locks all hoar,         
And put her lean hands to the horrid thing:
  Three hours they labour’d at this travail sore;
At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
And Isabella did not stamp and rave.

Ah! wherefore all this wormy circumstance?         
  Why linger at the yawning tomb so long?
O for the gentleness of old Romance,
  The simple plaining of a minstrel’s song!
Fair reader, at the old tale take a glance,
  For here, in truth, it doth not well belong         
To speak:—O turn thee to the very tale,
And taste the music of that vision pale.

With duller steel than the Persèan sword
  They cut away no formless monster’s head,
But one, whose gentleness did well accord         
  With death, as life. The ancient harps have said,
Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord:
  If Love impersonate was ever dead,
Pale Isabella kiss’d it, and low moan’d.
’Twas love; cold,—dead indeed, but not dethroned.         

In anxious secrecy they took it home,
  And then the prize was all for Isabel:
She calm’d its wild hair with a golden comb,
  And all around each eye’s sepulchral cell
Pointed each fringed lash; the smeared loam         
  With tears, as chilly as a dripping well,
She drench’d away:—and still she comb’d, and kept
Sighing all day—and still she kiss’d, and wept.

Then in a silken scarf,—sweet with the dews
  Of precious flowers pluck’d in Araby,         
And divine liquids come with odorous ooze
  Through the cold serpent pipe refreshfully,—
She wrapp’d it up; and for its tomb did choose
  A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by,
And cover’d it with mould, and o’er it set         
Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet.

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,
  And she forgot the blue above the trees,
And she forgot the dells where waters run,
  And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;        
She had no knowledge when the day was done,
  And the new morn she saw not: but in peace
Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,
And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

And so she ever fed it with thin tears,         
  Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew,
So that it smelt more balmy than its peers
  Of Basil-tufts in Florence; for it drew
Nurture besides, and life, from human fears,
  From the fast mouldering head there shut from view:         
So that the jewel, safely casketed,
Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread.

O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
  O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,         
  Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads, and smile;
  Lift up your heads, sweet Spirits, heavily,
And make a pale light in your cypress glooms,
Tinting with silver wan your marble tombs.        

Moan hither, all ye syllables of woe,
  From the deep throat of sad Melpomene!
Through bronzed lyre in tragic order go,
  And touch the strings into a mystery;
Sound mournfully upon the winds and low;         
  For simple Isabel is soon to be
Among the dead: She withers, like a palm
Cut by an Indian for its juicy balm.

O leave the palm to wither by itself;
  Let not quick Winter chill its dying hour!—         
It may not be—those Baalites of pelf,
  Her brethren, noted the continual shower
From her dead eyes; and many a curious elf,
  Among her kindred, wonder’d that such dower
Of youth and beauty should be thrown aside         
By one mark’d out to be a Noble’s bride.

And, furthermore, her brethren wonder’d much
  Why she sat drooping by the Basil green,
And why it flourish’d, as by magic touch;
  Greatly they wonder’d what the thing might mean:         
They could not surely give belief, that such
  A very nothing would have power to wean
Her from her own fair youth, and pleasures gay,
And even remembrance of her love’s delay.

Therefore they watch’d a time when they might sift         
  This hidden whim; and long they watch’d in vain;
For seldom did she go to chapel-shrift,
  And seldom felt she any hunger-pain;
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.

Yet they contriv’d to steal the Basil-pot,
  And to examine it in secret place:
The thing was vile with green and livid spot,         
  And yet they knew it was Lorenzo’s face:
The guerdon of their murder they had got,
  And so left Florence in a moment’s space,
Never to turn again.—Away they went,
With blood upon their heads, to banishment.         

O Melancholy, turn thine eyes away!
  O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
O Echo, Echo, on some other day,
  From isles Lethean, sigh to us—O sigh!
Spirits of grief, sing not your “Well-a-way!”        
  For Isabel, sweet Isabel, will die;
Will die a death too lone and incomplete,
Now they have ta’en away her Basil sweet.

Piteous she look’d on dead and senseless things,
  Asking for her lost Basil amorously:         
And with melodious chuckle in the strings
  Of her lorn voice, she oftentimes would cry
After the Pilgrim in his wanderings,
  To ask him where her Basil was; and why
’Twas hid from her: “For cruel ’tis,” said she,         
“To steal my Basil-pot away from me.”

And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
  Imploring for her Basil to the last.
No heart was there in Florence but did mourn
  In pity of her love, so overcast.         
And a sad ditty of this story born
  From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d:
Still is the burthen sung—“O cruelty,
  “To steal my Basil-pot away from me!”

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