Isabella or The Pot of Basil: by John Keats - Analysis

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      In Isabella, writes Sidney Colvin, Keats sets a Southern story in a framework of northern landscape, adorning and amplifying it in the northern manner, “enriching it with tones of sentiment and colors of romance, and brooding over every image of beauty or of passion as he calls it up. False touches and misplaced beauties are not wanting in the poem. But these are the minor blemishes of a poem otherwise conspicuous for its power and its charm”.

      Though the poem is tender, touching and picturesque, Keats conveys the impression that he has consciously set himself to narrating something pathetic. And this impression is strengthened by the quality of his invocation to melancholy music, to Echo, to Spirits in Grief, and to Melpomene to condole the approaching death of Isabella. The poem would have gained in strength if, instead of analyzing on the pity of it all, he had left pity to speak to the heart of the very circumstances of the story. Moreover, the poem is uneven in execution, and artifice is more in evidence than it had been before in Keats’s poems. Sometimes, says Amy Lowell, “he descends to tortured similes and forced metaphors to an extent that set one’s teeth on edge”.

      While there is much truth in this criticism, the fact remains that Keats has fashioned something lovely out of the bare framework of the story he found in Boccaccio The opening stanzas, in their delineation of the delicate susceptibility of the lovers to each other’s presence, are in their own way, some of the most perfect things Keats has written. Never perhaps has the absorption of grief found a more impassioned, and at the same time a more ideal utterance than in the lines in which the poet presents Isabella weeping beside the pot of Basil, oblivious of that changeful loveliness in the world about her:

And she forgot the stars, the moon, the sun,
And she forgot the blue over the trees”.

      And with a penetrative imagination, he reveals the tragic loneliness of the murdered lover by dwelling on the latter’s dim, ghost like perception of the sights and sounds of the earth:

“those sounds grow strange to me,
And thou art distant in Humanity”.

      But perhaps Keat’s greatest triumph is in his handling of the digging up of the body. “The excellence of every art”, says Keats, “is its intensity, which is capable of making all disagreeable evaporate from their being in relationship with beauty and truth.” Take the vision of the murdered man appearing to the girl at night:

“Its eyes, though wild, were still all dewy bright
With love, and kept all phantom fear aloof From the poor girl by their magic light”.

      Love prevails over horror, and purges the apparition of all its charnel ghastliness. And when we come to the actual digging up of the body, Keats, departing from his original Boccaccio who surmounts the difficulty by saying that the body was uncorrupted, confronts it and overcomes it. He acknowledges that the imagination, by dwelling on the dead, tends to call up images of corruptibility; and then he compulsively leads away the mind from such images to think only of the passionate absorption with which Isabella flings herself upon her task.

      Let us analyze the three stanzas in which incident is described. The swift, despairing gaze of the girl anticipates, with too dire a certainty, the realization of her dream, which is emphasized by the simile in the third and fourth lines of the first stanza; and which, at the same time relieves its terror by an image of beauty. The simile of the lily strikes another note, of beauty even while it intensifies the impression of her rooted fixity of posture and purpose. That fixity is suddenly dissolved into vehement action as she begins to dig more fervently than misers can, and comes upon the first reward of her toil in the shape of a relic, not ghastly, but beautiful both in itself and for the tenderness of which it is a token. With womanly action she kisses it and puts it in her bosom, revealing at the same time the truth woman and mother in her labors again and continues her digging, with gestures of vital dramatic true as well as of grace. Even the best of poets have not often combined such concentrated force and beauty of conception with such limpid and flowing ease of narrative.

      Taken by and large, we may say that though Isabella cannot be placed side by side with some of the masterpieces of Keats, it has yet a tragic and a romantic enhancement of its own, an enchantment that familiarity cannot stale.

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