Isabella; or the Pot of Basil- John Keats


Key Information

  • Written in ottava rima
  • Published in 1820
  • Adapted from Bocaccio's Decameron (1351), paralleling one of 100 stories: 'Lisabetta and her brothers'.
  • Narrative poem
  • The brothers in the poem are meant to symbolise capitalism and greed within society vs. romanticism and beauty, as a result of Keats' relationship with the radical publisher Lee Hunt who educated him on politics. This also symbolises Keats' struggle against the Enlightenment movement, as he was a Romantic.
  • Romantic irony is used throughout to convey Keats' uncertainty of the poem, as well as his own views about capitalism, or Enlightenment, prevailing over Romanticism.
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Poem Overview

The poem tells the tale of Isabella- a young woman whose brothers wish to marry her off to a rich noble. Instead she is in love with Lorenzo, an employee of her brothers. Her brothers learn this and kill lorenzo. His ghost informs Isabella and she exhumes him, keeping his head in a pot of basil which she tends to obsessively. The brothers discover the pot and steal it, fleeing from Florence. Now deprived of her lover and the pot of basil, Isabella goes mad and dies.

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Stanzas I-III

  • "Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!" → Name is an aptronym meaning worshipper or 'devoted to God" in Hebrew, conveying devotion to Lorenzo. Adjectival juxtapositon of 'fair' with 'poor simple' foreshadows two conflicting causes. 
  • "a young palmer in Love's eye" → Alludes to Romeo and Juliet, foreshadowing tragedy. Personification of the abstract noun conveys the force of love.
  • Repetition of "They could not" foreshadows entrapment in love.
  • "He might not in house, field, or garden stir...Pleasanter to her than noise of trees or hidden rill" → Pastoral imagery conveys Romanticism and how natural their love is.
  • "farther than the falcon spies" → Simile conveys Lorenzo's devotion to Isabel.
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Stanzas IV- VII

  • Pathetic fallacy is used to convey the progression of the relationship, and foreshadows tragedy due to connotations of the seasons → "May...Made their cheeks paler by the break of June"
  • "sweet Isabella's untouched cheek" → Purity and innocence of Isabel enhances tragedy.
  • Motherly semantic field is ironic as Isabel will never take up these roles, thus irony creates tragedy → "Fell thin as a young mother's, who doth seek / By every lull to cool her infant's pain"
  • "If looks seek love-laws, I will drink her tears" → Ironic foreshadowing and allusion to how societal convention will keep the couple apart.
  • "meekness of a child" → Infantilization of Lorenzo conveys status difference as Isabel is presented as a matriarch.
  • "A dreary night of love and misery" → Juxtaposition conveys ill-fate
  • "She saw it waxing very pale and dead" → Foreshadowing doom
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Stanzas VIII-XI

  • "My soul is to its doom"→ Foreshadowing
  • "Love! thou art leading me from wintry cold / Lady! thou leadest me to summer clime" → Ironic use of pathetic fallacy as Lorenzo is soon going to a "better place".
  • "He with light steps went up a western hill / And bade the sun farewell, and joyed his fill" → Foreshadows Lorenzo's death as the sun sets in the west, which symbolises death.
  • "before the dusk / Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil" → Symbolises endings, loss and the coming of unpleasantness.
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Stanzas XXI-XV

  • Romatic irony and repeated phrase creates tragedy as the lovers should have taken more initiative in being together → "Too many"
  • Classical allusion foreshadows heartbreak, as Ariadne was deserted by Theseus after saving his life and leaving her home for him → "Theseas' spouse"
  • "Though Dido is silent is in under-grove" → Classical allusion as the poem echoes that of the Queen of Carthage who was wooed by Aeneus, but the Gods ordered him to leave her, foreshadowing heartbreak.
  • "Was not embalmed"→ Foreshadows an undignified death
  • "Even bees, the little almsmen of spring-bowers / Know there is richest juice in poison flowers" → Metaphor conveys how danger sweets their love, echoing Romeo and Juliet again. This also foreshadows the lasting impact of their love.
  • "two brothers" → Two villains vs. two victims convey capitalism and greed vs. love and romanticism. 
  • "And many once proud-quivered loins did melt / With blood from stinging whip- with hollow eyes" → Conveys the predatory nature of the brothers, as they degrade the strongest of men as hunters become the hunted. 
  • "Half-ignorant, they turned an easy wheel / That set sharp racks at work to pinch and peel" → Metaphor for how pleasant love will turn to pain, and ease of cruelty is a criticism of Capitalism which makes love difficult- Hunt's influence.
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Stanzas XVI-XIX

  • Romantic irony, repetition and hypophora showcases Keats' view on capitalism → "Why were they proud?"
  • "red-lined accounts" → Polysemant conveys literal account books and conveys figurative meaning of blood spilled to make the brothers prosper.
  • "Paled in and vineyarded from beggar-spies" → Contrast between pallor and rich wine conveys exploitation.
  • "The hawks of ship-mast forests" → Metaphor conveys the brother's predatory nature, and how they were focused on money. 
  • "cat's-paws" → Scornful term shows low esteem for those who get others to do their dirty work, further showcasing keats' views on capitalism.
  • "Hot Egypt's pest" → Metaphor for how God plagued Egypt with locusts, paralleling how the brothers plague those who have 'wronged'.
  • Reference to the "hunted hare" conveys how karma will catch up with the brothers.
  • "And of thy roses amorous of the moon / And of thy lilies, that do paler grow" → Draws upon flower symbolism to convey ill-fated love, as lilies were popular funeral flowers and they symbolise death. 
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Stanzas **-**III

  • Hypocrisy of brother's bitterness conveys the stupidity of capitalist ideals prevailing over the sweetness of love.
  • "When 'twas their plan to coax her by degrees / To some high noble and his olive-trees" → Olives connote peace. This ironic Biblical allusion shows hypocrisy and how the brothers will come to regret their decision.
  • "crime atone" → Conveys stupidity as Lorenzo has done nothing wrong.
  • "men of cruel clay" → Implies that capitalism creates cruelty.
  • "Cut Mercy with a sharp knife to the bone" → Metaphor and personification convey that the brothers will show no mercy.
  • "Pleasant morning" → Contrast between romantic pastoral imagery compared to the ill-intent of the brothers creates foreboding.
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  • "His dewy rosary on the eglantine" → Eglantine or sweet briar symbolises Christ's wounds on the cross due to its five petals, foreshadowing that Lorenzo will die for his 'sins'.
  • "Bowed a fair greeting to these serpents' whine" → Serpents symbolise deception 
  • "Good bye! I'll soon be back" → Irony enhances tragedy as the reader is reminded of the life Lorenzo and Isabel could have had.
  • "murdered man" → Past participle contrasts harshly with the pastoral scene and creates tragedy as it is implied that Lorenzo was doomed from the start, as emphasised by consonance.
  • "still doth fan / Itself with dancing bullrush" → Personification of nature foreshadows how Isabel keeps Lorenzo alive through the basil.
  • Juxtaposition between "sick and wan" and "flush with love" conveys Keats' preference of Romanticism over capitalism. 
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  • End rhyme of "cease" and "peace" foreshadows how Lorenzo's death will bring nothing but misery until Isabel dies to be with him. 
  • "As the break-covert blood-hounds of such sin" → Simile conveys that the brothers' deeds will come back to haunt them, as blood hounds are used to find people, so here they symbolise karma or comeuppance. 
  • "Each richer by his being a murderer" → Irony conveys the stupidity of prioritising capitalism over Romantic ideals. 
  • "sudden speed" → Sibilance creates a pace increase, foreshadowing a negative trajectory.
  • "trusty hands" → Irony
  • "stifling widow's weed" → Verb "stifling holds polysemantic meaning, as it refers to a stifling mourning dress and the acceptance of fate, which stifles complaint.
  • "Hope's accurséd bands" → Personification of emotion implies that emotion has no place in capitalism.
  • "She weeps alone for pleasures not to be" → Reliance on men conveys a patriarchal view of women, as well as reflecting Keats' view that love causes destruction.
  • "Selfishness, Love's cousin" → Personification of emotion reflects the Romantic ideal of emotion over logic.
  • "fiery vigil" → Adverbial phrase conveys devotion and foreshadows Isabel's later actions.
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  • "sick west continually bereaves" → Sunsets used as a motif for loss as the couple would spend time together under the "pleasant veil" of the stars.
  • "to make all bare" → Personification of the sunset and pathetic fallacy of autumn convey loss.
  • "Their crimes / Came on them, like a smoke from Hinnom's vale" → Simile conveys how the brothers are cursed by their actions because Hinnom's vale was the destination of the wicked as children were sacrificed by fire in the Bible.
  • "To see their sister in her snowy shroud" → Polysemant alludes to the wedding that will never be, as well as Isabel's funeral shroud.
  • "like a fierce potion, drunk by chance / Which saves a sick man" → Enjambement heightens tragedy as Isabel is made aware of Lorenzo's fate. 
  • "like a lance...with cruel pierce" → The harsh semantic field of the simile conveys how Isabel is sharply removed from her "drowsy ignorance" by an apparition of Lorenzo.
  • "It was a vision." → Declarative phrase and end-stopping marks Isabel's anagnorisis.
  • "Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom / Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute / From his lorn voice, and past his loaméd ears" → Assonance of long 'l' sounds convey the wailing of a ghost, as well as Lorenzo's torment.
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  • "And Isabella on its music hung." → The noun "music" connotes the joy of being in Lorenzo's presence, and end-stopping connotes finality and devotion. 
  • "Of the late darkened time- the murderous spite / Of pride and avarice" → Lack of light is used as a motif for loss, and Keats uses romantic irony to show his own contempt for capitalism.
  • "Go, shed one tear upon my heather-bloom / And it shall comfort me within the tomb" → Foreshadows the pot of basil.
  • "I am a shadow now, alas! alas!" → Repetition of the exclamation of the exclamation "alas!" creates pathos as Lorenzo doesn't want to part with Isabel.
  • "I chant alone the holy mass" → Conveys the indignity of Lorenzo's death as he never recieved his last rites, which were seen as crucial in Catholic Italy.
  • "While little sounds of life are around me knelling" → Foreshadows how death consumes Isabel as every sound is a death knell. 
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Stanzas XL-XLIII

  • "That paleness warms my grave, as though I had / A seraph chosen from the bright abyss" → Petrarchan conceit conveys Lorenzo's love as a "seraph" is the highest order of angel. The oxymoron "bright abyss" is jarring and implies that Lorenzo is destined for heaven. 
  • "Thy beauty grows upon me, and I feel / A greater love through all my essence steal" → Enjambement evokes pathos through irony as Lorenzo is definitive in death but hesitated in life. 
  • Capitalisation of the noun "Spirit" creates a tragic separation between Isabel and Lorenzo as they are in different realms.
  • Assonance in the phrase "slow turmoil" drags out Isabel's suffering.
  • "In the dawn she started up awake-" → Enjambement creates the anticipation of a plan.
  • Personification of "Fate" creates a further allusion to the "star cross'd lovers" in Romeo and Juliet as it was Keats' favourite play.
  • "a brother's bloody knife!" → Alliterative plosives convey the cruelty of their actions.
  • "How she might find the clay" → Anaphoric allusion to "cruel clay", i.e. the unmasking of the murder.
  • "forest-hearse" is a metaphor for how the forest is Lorenzo's resting place, where he can journey to the afterlife.
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  • "What feverous hectic flame / Burns in thee, child?" → Enjambement and frantic semantic field conveys Isabel's distress.
  • Personification of "Death" conveys that Lorenzo has been taken by unnatural forces.
  • "Ah! this is holiday to what was felt / When Isabella by Lorenzo knelt" → Juxtaposing the positive noun "holiday" with the macabre imagery in the stanza conveys the strength of the couple's love. 
  • "like to a native lily of the dell" → Simile conveys death and devotion through lily symbolism.
  • "nor stayed her care / But to throw back at times her veiling hair" → Foreshadows how Isabel will become consumed by Lorenzo. 
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  • "And Isabella did not stamp and rave." → End-stopping emphasises eerie calm and goes against contemporary views of women, foreshadowing Isabel's madness. 
  • Personification of "Romance" is an example of romantic irony as Keats questions why capitalism prevailed over the purity of love to cause misery.
  • "And taste the music of that vision pale" → Negative capability and synthesia emphasises the senseless tragedy by comandeering the senses.
  • "With duller steel than the persèan sword / They cut away no formless monster's head" → Classical allusion to the myth of Perseus who cut off Medusa's head, and enhances the unjust nature of Lorenzo's death as he had done nothing wrong.
  • Lorenzo is "cold, dead indeed, but not dethroned", conveying that he remains important to Isabel.
  • Simile "as chilly as a dripping well" conveys that the joy has gone from Isabels life as she is consumed by mourning.
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Stanzas LII-LV

  • Allliterative 'O' sounds in the phrase "odourous ooze" drag the phrase out and create a sense of opulence, illustrating Isabel's care for the head.
  • "Sweet basil" symbolised love in Boccaccio's work, through Italian tradition.
  • Repetition of "And she forgot" enhances the idea of obsession with the pot of basil.
  • "And so she ever fed it with thin tears / Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew" → Ironic as the basil blooms but Lorenzo and Isabel's love cannot. 
  • The noun "jewel" conveys Lorenzo's importance to Isabel.
  • Classical allusion to the myth of Echo, who was a nymph cursed by Hera with a speech impediment emphasises tragedy.
  • Exclamations create a wailing tone. 
  • "cypress" trees are planted in Italian cemeteries and symbolise mourning.
  • Drawing upon tragic figures emphasises tragedy as this implies that Isabel can relate to the suffering that they represent.
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Stanzas LVI-LIX

  • "Melpomene" was the muse of tragedy, and this core reference conveys how consuming Isabel's grief is.
  • "For simple Isabel is soon to be / Among the dead" → Foreshadowing creates tragedy through waste of life.
  • "She withers, like a palm"→ Simile conveys deterioration
  • The brothers are called "Baälites of Pelf", referring to worshippers of ill-gotten gains, after the Pagan deity mentioned in the Bible. This foreshadows their downfall.
  • "why it flourished, as by magic touch" → Conveys the power of love.
  • "And even rememberance of her love's delay"→ Irony is enhanced by end-stopping as the brothers are made to look foolish.
  • "Seldom did she go to chapel-shrift"→ Tragic because Isabel was formerly devoted to her "matin song" and God. 
  • "As bird on wing to breast its eggs again / And, patient, as a hen-bird"→ Simile creates pathos as Isabel tends to the basil like she would a husband or child. The use of a domestic/maternal bird conveys contemporary ideals as the men are presented as more powerful creatures.
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Stanzas LX-LXIII

  • "The guerdon of their murder they had got" → Ironic because "guerdon" means price, which is ironic because the brothers had riches, but then they paid the metaphorical price for their deeds.
  • Anaphora conveys further deterioration → "O melancholy, turn thine eyes away!"
  • "Sweet Isabel will die" → Modal verb conveys finality, and the futility of Enlightenment prevailing over Romanticism as this doomed Isabel. 
  • The adjective "incomplete" enhances a sense of injustice as Isabel is robbed of a life.
  • "After the pilgrim in his wonderings" → Allusion to Romeo and Juliet, conveying doomed love.
  • "Imploring for her basil to the last" → Conveys Isabel's devotion.
  • The noun "ditty" conveys Keats' belief that the poem was "mawkish" as this minimises the significance of the poem.
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