Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil

by John Keats
Written: 1818
The Burial of Phocion, Nicolas Poussin (1648) [Wikimedia Commons]

[Considering the extreme length of this blog post I have foregone the typical fact-checking and appending of numerous links. Please forgive the omission.]

Against the background of the Plague, one of Giovanni Boccaccio's narrators in his Decameron chooses to impart to an audience of lords and fellow ladies the following cheerful tale :
LISABETTA'S brothers slay her lover, who appeareth to her in a dream and showeth her where he is buried, whereupon she privily disinterreth his head and setteth it in a pot of basil. Thereover making moan a great while every day, her brothers take it from her and she for grief dieth a little thereafterward
Even when expanded beyond the synopsis as Filomena tells it, the story is (in my opinion) irritatingly slight in spite of its tragedy. If the driving force behind the brothers' actions were a Greek god on an arbitrary rampage the tale would be far more sensible, and instead they appear to be merely a random act of psychotic violence which in the recounting appeals only to the commonest greed for sensation.

Admittedly one can nevertheless think of possible purposes to the tale. For instance, it might reflect the patriarchal excesses of medieval and Renaissance society, in which family means not protective affection but possessive tyranny. Or it can be a lament for the cruelty of the world toward star-crossed lovers in the Romeo and Juliet tradition. Or it could be an unsympathetic cautionary tale as to what happens when a young maiden has an affair outside the bonds of marriage and thereby thumbs her nose at the gods of expediency, i.e. the idols at whose altar society worships.

Either way, grave doubts as to its romanticness arise at the point where Lisabetta disinters Lorenzo and employs her knife to saw off the man's head for safekeeping. But it wavers back from time to time during the subsequent dubious step-by-step guide to tending a beloved gentleman's cranium:
taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.
It isn't different in principle from Cinderella (Aschenputtel) watering her mother's grave with her tears in the Grimm fairy tale, but infinitely more disturbing. Which, considering that even over a century after Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, Leonardo da Vinci haunted cemeteries to dig up corpses for anatomical studies, and the peculiar ideas of criminal justice prevalent in those days, and altogether the pervasive mingling of death and life (vide the plague, which Boccaccio describes so pithily in the Decameron's introduction), probably fits into the times.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868 [Wikimedia Commons]

Whatever the merits of the plot may be, it captured the imaginations of John Keats in the first quarter of the 19th century, and of Hans Christian Andersen and (in the painterly realm) the Pre-Raphaelites in the second and third quarters.

Keats's take on the matter is unapologetically soppy, a paean to the dewy-eyed love of youth. [Disclaimer: I skim the poem whenever reading it, so this treatment of it may lack depth.]

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.

The second verse is fortunately improved by little touching details:

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.
Though the unkind mind might suggest that Isabella must be as big as a whale to fill all her beloved's seeing. A picture of bucolic bliss, as exists only in the minds of those who read Christopher Marlowe idylls of shepherds and shepherdesses unironically, is drawn at length. After the early hesitancy is surmounted the two of them become lovers and
his erewhile timid lips grew bold,
And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme.
(At which point the reader may have difficulties keeping a straight face.) But then the maiden's brothers destroy their lover's paradise, in what a description of their trade might suggest is an allegory to the destruction of nature and rural harmony by the Industrial Revolution.
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.
This and the next verses could certainly be considered as a point on a line that leads from William Wilberforce and the Luddites through socialism and Charles Dickens to, let's say, Emile Zola's Germinal. In the disdain of filthy lucre and trade these verses are very suggestive, too, of the impecunious artist (and of snobbery).

In Keats's version of events the brothers' pride of caste leads them to abhor the thought that their subordinate should be their sister's beloved, and besides Lorenzo is an impediment to marrying her off to a rich aristocrat.
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.
After the deed is done, they considerately tell Isabella that her soulmate has sailed away to foreign lands.
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,
pining. Her brothers feel twinges of conscience as she becomes pathetically ill, but they go on lying to her. But the truth is revealed to her by Lorenzo's spirit through a dream. Among other things he remarks,
thy paleness makes me glad;
Thy beauty grows upon me, and I feel
A greater love through all my essence steal.
It may satisfy someone's artistic vision, but if a beloved wanted me to waste away and die amid great mental suffering, the first thing I would do once I've crossed the Styx is sock him in the chin.

There are lines here and there which tend to support the timid suspicion that Keats's verse is at times exceedingly feeble. Witness this fine specimen of rhyme, which describes Isabella's visit to the forest where Lorenzo was killed after she had seen the vision:
she took with her an aged nurse,
And went into that dismal forest-hearse.
Or, when the visit proves sadly successful,
At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
And Isabella did not stamp and rave.
Which is about as climactic (in my view) as "The Star-Spangled Banner" when the lyrics go "and the flag was . . . still there!" Keats then follows in Boccaccio's footsteps in elucidating proper grooming procedures for the skull of a defunct lover:
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.
Whereupon she
withers, like a palm
Cut by an Indian for its juicy balm.
But the basil plant is doing well. The brothers, intent on ruining this questionable idyll too, kidnap it for further examination, and though "the thing was vile with green and livid spot" recognize in the skull the beneficiary of their homicidal activities, and decide privily to go into everlasting banishment.
And so she [Isabella] 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!"
* * *

Though Oscar Wilde or Edgar Allan Poe might appear to be fine candidates to give the story their own twist, given their macabre streaks and appreciation for Italy in bygone and undercivilized times, it was Hans Christian Andersen who took up the lance. Fittingly he sentimentalized it a great deal, and wrote it from the comparatively cuddly perspective of a rose-elf, in the eponymous tale "Elf of the Rose."

This elf wanders along the leaves of the roses, of which the veins serve as roads, so minuscule is his stature, and lives and flits between the flower buds. But once he is weary from his travels and the roses are shut against him before the impending night, so he turns to a honeysuckle arbour and sees a young pair of lovers who are bidding each other farewell. The lady gives the gentleman a rose and after a spot of kissing they part. The latter is pleased with his present, but the brother of the lady is not pleased with his dalliance, so
he drew out a sharp knife, and while the other was kissing the rose, the wicked man stabbed him to death; then he cut off his head, and buried it with the body in the soft earth under the linden-tree.
(On the plus side, the knife wasn't blunt or serrated, and the lady doesn't have to do the decapitating of the corpse later. I wonder, though, if linden trees have knobbly, shallow roots or a tap root, because if the former it would have been a major pain in the neck to bury a body right under one.) Meanwhile the elf has fallen onto a dead linden leaf which fell onto the assassin's head, and hitches a ride home in an understandably disconsolate frame of mind.

The brother visits his sister's bedroom to cackle evilly, the leaf falls out of his head, and during the night the elf serenades the unlucky woman with a recounting of her beloved's demise. As promised, she also finds the crumpled leaf on her bed to prove that the story was no dream. During the day the elf hangs out in a rosebush in her room, and the next night the lady sneaks out and finds the corpse. She takes home the skull and a little jasmine plant that has bloomed nearby, and plants them both in a generously proportioned flowerpot.

Her grief makes the elf too miserable, so he lives out of doors again and pays her regular visits. As in Keats's poem, the lady wilts away as the flora thrives, and as not in Keats's poem the homicidal brother grumbles at her. At long last,
one day she sat and leaned her head against the flower-pot, and the little elf of the rose found her asleep. Then he seated himself by her ear, talked to her of that evening in the arbor, of the sweet perfume of the rose, and the loves of the elves. Sweetly she dreamed, and while she dreamt, her life passed away calmly and gently, and her spirit was with him whom she loved, in heaven.
(At which point I will admit that despite the smothering sentimentality of the words a certain teariness threatens.) Her surviving relative is happy to inherit the jasmine and brings it to his room. The elf follows it and whispers the story of the man's misdeeds to the flower-spirits, who say that it's old news considering whose skull they're growing out of, so the tiny avenger discontentedly goes on to see the bees, who promise to kill the killer. As it turns out the jasmine had appointed itself as the horticultural hangman anyway, and that night the sentence is executed as the spirits give the murderer nightmares and poison him with their infinitesimal spears. The bees and the elf rush in the next morning to find their prey dead.

But the punishment is not complete enough. As people come into the room to gawk, the insects flock around the jasmine pot, and sting a man who lifts it in the hand, so that it crashes to the floor and reveals the skull.
And the queen bee hummed in the air, and sang of the revenge of the flowers, and of the elf of the rose and said that behind the smallest leaf dwells One, who can discover evil deeds, and punish them also.
[Cf. the similarly uplifting Grimm tale of murder inevitably revealed, "Die klare Sonne bringt's an den Tag."]

And, if all goes as intended, a young and overly literate child will go to bed trembling in his little boots, resolving never to stab people and cut off their heads and hide them under linden trees because otherwise our benevolent God (through his self-appointed earthly minions) will hound him to the gates of Hades.
From the Botanical Magazine (1787), Vol. I [Wikimedia Commons]
The End.

(To be fair, I first read the story at the age of nine or ten and wasn't too affected by it, theologically or otherwise, except in finding it gloomily fascinating.)

* * *

The Decamerone of Giovanni Boccacio []
An e-text of John Payne's translation, which had originally been published in 1886.

Keats: Poems Published in 1820 []
A volume of verse with a handy hyperlink to "The Pot of Basil" in the table of contents.

Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen []
A translation of many of Andersen's tales by an unknown person.

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