Thursday, 12 April 2012

Isabella or the Pot of Basil

Published in 1818 Isabella is one of Keats' early works. Later when his publishers offered to publish it, thinking it would be popular, he tried to prevent them, saying it was rubbish. Compared to the mature Keats seen in the Odes and Lamia, Isabella seems melodramatic. Neither is its rhythm anything compared to the sensuous image-filled Eve of St Agnes. Taken from a story from Boccaccio's Decameron, it is not an English mediaeval or Classical Greek story but an Italian one.

by Holman Hunt
The story is about a girl called Isabella who dwells with her two brothers who own a thriving business. She and a clerk of the brothers called Lorenzo fall in love with each other. When the brothers notice this they think their sister's reputation will be compromised as Lorenzo is beneath her in station and they want to marry her off to a nobleman with estates. (In the original Isabella was entering Lorenzo's room or vice versa, seen by the brothers). So they tell Lorenzo they have business to do elsewhere and get him to come along. Then they take him to a forest and kill him and bury him. When they return and Lorenzo is absent for so long Isabella asks where he is, the brothers reply he is away on business and her heart breaks. However, in a dream Lorenzo tells her he has been murdered and where his body is. With her nurse Isabella goes to the forest, unearths the corpse and takes Lorenzo's head. She then buries it in a pot filled with soil and a basil plant. She carries the pot with her wherever she goes. Her tears water the basil, and the brothers wonder how the plant grows so luxuriantly. One day they examine the plant and see Lorenzo's hair emanating from the pot. Frightened they take the pot away and run away. Without her basil Isabella pines away and dies of grief.

by Waterhouse
Interestingly their love is described before the setting is told. This is one of Keats' defects. Putting in the background later spoils the passion and interest created and it is always interesting to know how they came to know each other first. It is melodramatic and overdone but then Boccaccio's stories were not always profound, and for this we must lay the blame on Boccaccio rather than Keats. Their love is obsessive, like the mediaeval chivalric ideal of love. But they sound like young teenagers obsessed with each other rather than mature adults, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet somehow, or rather, another lesser work on vampire-love.

“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        60
“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.
They are in a bower of hyacinth and musk, a prelude to the sensuous Keats. It is one of my favourite phrases. Interestingly, a blue hyacinth means constancy.  I suppose it foreshadows Isabella's deadly love? There is a little too many Greek references without reason or feeling, unlike the Odes and his later poems. You get the idea Keats was trying to over-impress.

Still, you get a lot of nature here:
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.
Stanzas 14-17 are remarkably powerful, more than those dwelling on the young lovers. The brothers have a well-established business inherited from ancestors, which prey on suffering workers. They care only for themselves and their profits. One wonders whether Keats was an abolitionist. Keats is over-vehement in some lines, but it adds to the power of the whole thing. I wonder whether he was thinking of his strict and tight-fisted guardian.
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;
Keats seems to be raging against the monuments or possessions of rich merchants as being shallow compared to pure feeling and humanity. Is this a revoke of the cold-hearted industrial era for the pursuit of the individual and humanity? Marble founts are manmade and remind you of wealth, tears are natural and remind you of our essential humanness and vulnerability. Red-lined accounts smacks of concrete commerce, different from the poetic Grecian songs which were his ideal - he was fond of Grecian things though he knew no Greek.
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        125
  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?
Some digression follows. I am reminded of my boring three months studying Chaucer's digressions in the Nun's Priest's Tale for the A-Levels.
by Strudwick
The point I am trying to make is that after comparing the English translation of Decameron to Keats, Lorenzo's killing is actually more justified in the original version. Because the girl (Lisabetta) goes to his room at night, whereas Keats cuts out the suggestive matter. One could sympathise with the brothers who wish to avenge their sister's ruin in the 19th century (it was honourable) so he chose to make their murder all the more heinous. Also, there is no mention in the original of the brothers being cruel sadistic slave-drivers. This seems to be a more modern motif, perhaps inserted to increase dramatic effect, or a way for Keats to show that he kept up with the times. Associating with radicals like Leigh Hunt perhaps this influenced him. But sadistic employers in a mediaeval story is a contrast from the contemporary Regency era in which Keats wrote. Slavery was an issue even in that later era, but is it possible Keats wanted to show how backward and brutal the Middle Ages could be? And by that extension, how Mediaeval the 19th century was in using slaves? One thing doesn't support this theory: Keats loved the Middle Ages. He dreamt of it, wrote about it, made it sound beautiful and nostalgic. I think the cruel employers are more likely a fairy-tale element to make the poem sound interesting. On the other hand this is an Italian Mediaeval era rather than an English one. I have no idea what he thought of the Italian Middle Ages.

But then Boccaccio was part of the Early Renaissance. This is another clue. A Romantic resisting an industrial Victorianisation might have sympathy for a classical Grecian or mediaeval era ideal conflicting with a developing Renaissance world. The evil brothers' trade could then be seen as part of the cruel more commercial renaissance infringing upon the absorbing passion of Lorenzo and Isabella, and the  old Grecian songs and natural state. Of course Keats couldn't write about his own era, because the story is set centuries ago. But he could draw analogies between his era and a previous one, and the similar conflicts they underwent.  

by WJ Neatby
You may find more illustrations here.

1 comment:

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