Monday, April 11, 2016

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“ISABELLA; or THE POT OF BASIL” by John Keats (written 1818; first published in 1820)

            Going back to literature that you loved as a teenager can be a chastening experience. “Did I really like that?” you say to yourself in disappointment or bemusement as your adult eyes scan critically what your youthful eyes once devoured uncritically. And yet it is not always a negative experience. Sometimes you give your younger self points for good taste, even if your taste has moved on.
            The first grown-up narrative poem that I read by choice and for pleasure, and not because some teacher had told me to, was John Keats’ Isabella or the Pot of Basil.
I think I was about fifteen. Why this poem? I’m not sure, but probably because it appeared in an old Collins Clear Type edition of Keats’ poems, to which I still give shelf space. The edition was illustrated and I was still of an age when I looked at the pictures in books before I read the text. This poem was represented with what I now see to be a rather crude image of Isabella weeping over her pot of basil. Anyway, it intrigued me enough to read the poem and I did, a number of times. All 63 stanzas of ottava rima (eight lines with three sets of crossed rhymes followed by a couplet, a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c).
I loved it.
John Keats (1795-1821) wrote this poem when he was 23, although it was first published when he was 25. It was therefore written before the annus mirabilis for which he is so often praised. He adapted his story from Boccaccio’s Decameron.
In Renaissance Florence, Isabella loves Lorenzo and Lorenzo loves Isabella, but Isabella’s two brothers are ambitious merchants who want their sister to make a wealthy marriage. They disapprove of poor Lorenzo, who is their lowly employee. Therefore they take desperate measures. Luring Lorenzo away on the pretext of taking him on a business trip, they murder him and bury him in a forest. Returning home, they tell Isabella that Lorenzo will be away on business for a very long time. But Isabella has a dream in which Lorenzo’s ghost tells her how he has been murdered and where he is buried. With a servant, Isabella hastens to the spot, uncovers the corpse and (bizarre detail) cuts off the head, which she preserves in a pot of the herb basil. She clings to this pot, tending it and weeping over it, so obsessively that her brothers notice. In a moment when the pot is unguarded, they steal it, discover its contents, and flee, knowing that their crime has been discovered. The poem ends with Isabella, unhinged, lamenting that her beloved basil pot has been taken from her.
When I first read this poem, I was puzzled that Isabella did not confront her brothers with their crime and took such an eccentric course in honouring her dead lover. I think I get it now. She is a powerless young woman whose life is controlled by her brothers and whose word (as a woman) wouldn’t be believed in a law court. She is also not focused on revenge (or justice) but on love and lament.
And besides, John Keats was following Boccaccio’s brutal little story.
Ahead of writing this notice, I checked out Boccaccio’s story (Decameron, Fourth Day, 5th story) in the two translations of the Decameron that sit on my shelves. Boccaccio’s story is set specifically in Messina (in Sicily) and the basil plant comes from Salerno. Lorenzo is Lorenzo, but the girl is called throughout Lisabetta, not Isabella. She has three brothers, not two. The story is curt and does not dally over the fine feelings of the lovers. In both the (1903) Everyman’s library translation by J.R. Rigg, and the (1972) Penguin translation by G.H.McWilliam, it runs to a mere four pages. It is a sharp little anecdote, emphasising horror and the grotesque. By the way, Isabella/ Lisabetta’s final lament over her basil pot is based on a Sicilian folk song from before Boccaccio’s time, and it may have been the folk song that inspired Boccaccio to write his tale.
While he does indeed tell the same story that Boccaccio told, John Keats changes some minor points – he shifts the setting to somewhere near Florence and the River Arno (Stanza 27) and gives Isabella only two brothers. More important, Keats shifts the emphasis from pure horror to the feelings of the lovers for each other, and to the inwardness of Isabella’s grief. He also interpolates things that do not concern Boccaccio  - such as a long condemnation of Isabella’s brothers (Stanzas 14, 15, 16) and apostrophes to Melancholy (Stanzas 55 and 61). Therefore, while staying true to Boccaccio’s narrative framework, the poem becomes a (sometimes uneasy) mixture of Romantic passion and sentiment with grotesque horror.
Now what, in this Romantic poem, appealed to a teenaged reader?
            The poem opens thus:
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
. (Stanza 1)
Immediately we know from the word “palmer” (pilgrim) that the poem will have an exalted view of romantic love as religious experience. Yes, that is the way adolescents often see it. But there is also the issue of sex. Isabella and Lorenzo ache to consummate their love sexually:
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
” (Stanza 5)
Lorenzo wails “I cannot live / Another night, and not my passion shrive.” (Stanza 8), again making sexual love a religious experience. “Shrive” means to have your sins cleansed by confession. In effect, Lorenzo is saying  “I will relieve myself of my passion in your body, just as a penitent relieves himself of sins in the confessional”. Unfulfilled sexual drives – that was another major attraction to the teenaged male reader, who spent much time speaking to his pillow.
And then the poem speaks to adolescent angst  - the persistent sense that “My family are controlling me! I’m not allowed to do what I want” etc. I remember, as a teenager, lingering over the stanza in which the ghost of Lorenzo departs, leaving Isabella to her lonely bed:
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
…” (Stanza 41)
            That phenomenon of lying awake in the darkness and seeing the “spangly gloom” dancing before my eyes – yes, I spent many teenage nights in that state.
            I am not looking at the poem now solely to rebuke my teenage self. I can appreciate in it much of Keats’ real skill. I note, for example, the way he is focusing on Isabella and her sorrow, and hence does not dwell on grisly details of Lorenzo’s murder. “So the two brothers and their murder’d man / Rode past fair Florence…” (Stanza 27) says one admired line, deliberately taking any suspense out of what the two brothers are going to do. Of the actual murder all we get is “There was Lorenzo slain and buried in, / There in that forest did his great love cease.” (Stanza 28). I also note flashes of psychological acuteness. Romantic and sexual love may be exalted in the poem as a quasi-religious phenomenon, but it always has its selfish side. When Isabella first learns that Lorenzo is not coming back (but before she knows that he is murdered), she laments first of all “pleasures not to be”; but then Keats comments “Selfishness, Love’s cousin, held not long / Its fiery vigil in her single breast”. (Stanza 31).
Selfishness, Love’s cousin”? In other words, in matters of sexual attraction, self-gratification is also a reality, as strong as an idealisation of the beloved.
Yet having noted the self-evident skill of a great poet, there are those points where the mature eye can see the joins. Keats eschews the “horror” aspect when he narrates Lorenzo’s murder but – for all his focus on Isabella’s anguish – he can’t forbear to drop in some gruesome Gothick elements. When Lorenzo’s ghost appears to Isabella, Keats suggests the awful decay of the murdered man’s corpse and the unearthliness of its voice (Stanzas 35, 36, 37). And hints of the true Gothick intermesh with the sweetly (or passionately) Romantic, when Isabella finds the forest grave where her lover is buried:
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
.” (stanza 45)
            Then there are the three consecutive stanzas that stick out like a sore thumb as a hindrance to the poem’s narrative drive. Keats denounces Isabella’s rapacious mercantile brothers in words that are among the most impassioned in the poem:
“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 seal on 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?”
(Stanzas 14, 15, 16)
Is this the Romantic poet reacting against the industry and early capitalism that was overwhelming England in his own day? In the “industrial revolution” the Romantic (and therefore radical) young Keats forgets his aim and goes off topic. After doing so, he asks Boccaccio’s pardon: “O eloquent and famed Boccaccio! / Of thee we now should ask forgiving boon…. Grant thou a pardon here, and then the tale / Shall move on soberly as it is meet…” (Stanzas 19 and 20) But the damage has still been done. There is a similar sense of the material going over-the-top and getting out of the poet’s control in Keats’ apostrophes to Melancholy (Stanzas 55 and 61). And, alas, there are stylistic breakdowns into bathos, as when Isabella is first told that Lorenzo will not return for a long time, and Keats slaps us with these limp lines: “To-day thou wilt not see him, nor to-morrow, / And the next day will be a day of sorrow.” (Stanza 29). The rather too hasty dismissal of Isabella’s brothers from the story is also bathetic (Stanza 60); though I am still in two minds as to whether the poem’s last words are: “O cruelty, / To steal my Basil-pot away from me!” (Stanza 63)
At least I can salute Keats’ fruitful ambiguity in the way he depicts Isabella’s obsessive care of her basil plant:  
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
.” (Stanza 53)
            Is this the epitome of grief and romantic love, or is it mania – a collapse into madness and a separation from the realities of the world?
            I am, of course, both arrogant and presumptuous to criticise a canonical poet like this – but I am consoled by the knowledge that Keats would have agreed with me. Keats was “dissatisfied with the poem before he had ended it” says Robert Gittings, the Keats scholar and biographer. Keats had to be argued into letting it be published in the 1820 volume which contained his more mature poetry. Keats wrote: “I will give you a few reasons why I shall persist in not publishing The Pot of Basil. It is too smokeable. I can get it smoak‘d at the Carpenters shaving chimney much more cheaply. There is too much inexperience of life, and simplicity of knowledge in it. […]. Isabella is what I should call  were  I  a  reviewer ‘A weak-sided Poem’ with an amusing sober-sadness about it.” The word “smokeable” was one Keats often used to mean ill-formed, unfocused, cloudy, immature and irresolute. As a poet who developed very fast, Keats himself saw Isabella or the Pot of Basil as not being worthy of his more developed poetic skill.
So how do I conclude this inquisition of one of Keats’ lesser works? Of course it is not his greatest. As a narrative poem, it does not have the power of The Eve of Saint Agnes or even the defective Lamia (though – Lord save us – it is not as tedious as Endymion). Certainly it is nowhere near the great odes for which Keats is best remembered. But it is still an excellent poem for a teenager to fall in love with, bathos, overblown apostrophes and all. You are lying in your single bed yearning for the opposite sex. What could console you better than this sad tale of lovers’ despair  – which also tells you how rotten some grown-ups can be?

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It’s a very curious fact that John Keats’ immature and imperfect poem became a favourite with Pre-Raphaelite and other Victorian-era painters. Look up the title Isabella or the Pot of Basil on Google Images and you will find literally dozens of nineteenth century paintings on the subject, most of them depicting Isabella weeping over her basil pot.

Curiously, the first and probably most famous painting derived from the poem does not depict the pot of basil. It is John Everett Millais’ Isabella (also known as Lorenzo and Isabella) exhibited in 1849. It shows the young lovers at the dinner table opposite Isabella’s brothers and it is heavy with symbolism. Lorenzo hands Isabella a cut blood orange on a plate – a premonition of the later decapitation of his corpse.

The most  famous depiction of Isabella with the basil pot is by another Pre-Raphaelite. It is William Holman Hunt’s 1868 painting which I had the pleasure of seeing in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 2014. In fact it was seeing this that made me go back and read the poem for the first time in years.

In 1879, the painter John Melhuish Strudwick took another tack. He did not show Isabella weeping over the basil pot, but showed her (remarkably languid and composed, I can’t help thinking) discovering that the pot has been stolen, while through the window behind her we can see her brothers sneaking away with it.

            And then there is the depiction of Isabella and her pot by the late 19th/early 20th century artist George Henry Grenville Manton. This is the one heaviest with the oblivion of grief – Isabella is clad in black and her eyes are closed as if grief has exhausted her.

            By the time Manton produced his version, Keats’ poem was already being produced in de luxe illustrated editions, like the one William Morris’s disciple W.B.MacDougall produced in 1898.
            It is possible that some of these artists saw themselves as illustrating Boccaccio’s story rather than Keats’ poem. But I doubt that there would have been so many depictions of the story if Keats had not written his poem. My cynical side notes, too, that Victorians would have been happier to illustrate this story than most of the other tales that fill the Decameron. After all, anecdotes of monks bonking nuns and priests bonking penitents would not have been able to be exhibited in a Victorain gallery. And yet, of course, the image of a grieving woman clinging to a solid upright thing has its own erotic charge, as I’m sure many of these artists fully understood.

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