John Keats Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil – Analysis

10th May 2017

by Aimee Wright

As discovered in the summary of Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, this is a narrative poem that involves many Romantic ideals, and the obsession that one may have to imagine and to forget about reality.

First of all, we are going to analyse Isabella’s character, as this is prevalent to the narrative:

Isabella is both ‘fair’ and ‘poor simple’ (line 1). Her contradictory character which is immediately introduced gives us a sense of mystery and confusion. We soon learn that Isabella sings to Lorenzo – ‘Her lute-string gave an echo of his name, / She spoilt her half-done broidery with the same.’ (lines 15-6). Keats’ use of the verb ‘echo’ – used as onomatopoeia – represents, and foreshadows, the ‘echoing’ of Isabella and Lorenzo’s relationship and love: it is everlasting. And, can we decipher what Isabella’s true character is like? Is she able to continuing singing, continue ‘echoing’, their love?

So, we can agree that Isabella’s character is a caring, but vulnerable, woman, whose ability to “keep love alive” is questionable, at this point of the poem. Now, lets analyse Lorenzo’s character:

Lorenzo is ‘a young palmer in Love’s eye!’ (line 2). This, unlike Isabella’s epithetical description, is simply just a ‘young palmer’. This represents a consistent character role, in juxtaposition to Isabella, and the perhaps represents that he will be still in ‘Love’s eye’ when he dies. Could we assume that Isabella is ‘Love’ as, Lorenzo will always be in Isabella’s eye, and her love for him continues even after his death.

Now, into the story. There is the idea, that was mentioned at the beginning of the summary that the two contrasting epithets on the first line: ‘Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!’ is imminent of the two conflicting causes that amount in the poem. However, there could be more than one battle perceived in the narrative:

The first of these perceptions, and, arguably, the most prominent, is the battle between Isabella and Lorenzo, against Isabella’s brothers. The way that this is represented throughout the poem by Keats indicates that the brothers are aware of the vulnerability of Isabella, and therefore take advantage of it. In fact, Keats uses the attributive adjective

‘Half-ignorant’ (line 119).

This represents Isabella’s ‘half’ of the battle is ‘ignorant’. And, as we continue, Keats becomes very frustrated in the language, and the structure, of stanza 16. The anaphoric reference of

‘Why were they proud? Because…’

is used to indicate Keats frustration with the brothers. However, the use of the interrogative sentence, and furthermore the hypophora, contrasts with Keats’ frustration. Why is Keats so frustrated with the brothers’ “pride” if he knows why – ‘because’ – they were proud? On what grounds can he afford to be frustrated?

CONTEXTUAL LINK: A key part of Romanticism is the emotions over logic concept. This, in itself, is like a battle – so maybe Keats used emotions over logic to reinforce the ongoing battle between Isabella and Lorenzo, and the brothers. The way that Keats, in stanza 16, has so evidently had a battle between his emotions and his logic symbolises the effect that one’s emotions can have on one’s work. Through the narrative of this poem, Keats has momentarily lost his way, allowing the personal issues of his life to interfere with the storyline. We could question whether Keats had any emotional connection, and hatred, towards the brothers at all, or whether he was just portraying irrelevant ideas in the structure, and masking itself as, part of the story.

The second perception of battle in the poem is between Isabella and Lorenzo. Now, this may seem like a far-fetched idea, but the general substance of the concept is plausible. Considering that Isabella and Lorenzo were so in love, there was something that pulled them apart – maybe a spirit, or a God – that made the two individuals battle for their love. In using this, Keats identifies that God may have an ulterior motive when associated with the needs for humankind.

The brothers are almost symbolic of the devil: their purpose during the poem is to take everything away from Isabella that she cared for, despite her subsequent death. It could be argued that they were the reason they have to fight for their love to continue. To support this, the brothers become an accomplice, as well as the perpetrators, of the murder of Lorenzo, in stanza 29 by stating:

            ‘They told their sister how, with sudden speed,
Lorenzo had ta’en ship for foreign lands,
Because of some great urgency and need
In their affairs, requiring trusty hands.’ (lines 225-8).

The way that they gave Isabella the false reason as to where Lorenzo has gone eliminates their part in the crime – as far as Isabella knows, they are just the messengers. The sibilance of ‘sudden speed’ is actually representative of the ‘speed’ and pace that comes that this point of the poem: the pace picks up and allows the reader to feel the ‘sudden speed’ alongside the characters.

Keats has used a sense of irony by saying that Lorenzo has ‘trusty hands’, or is trustworthy at all, as the brothers did not believe that he was trustworthy, and good enough for Isabella and her love, but is trustworthy enough to ‘ship for foreign lands’. Keats represents this quatrain of the story to impose, and cause battle for love, in Isabella’s relationship, as it makes Isabella feel ‘urgency’ in regaining Lorenzo’s love and battles for his reawakened physical body, rather than just the spirit, or the memory of him.

This image is elongated throughout the poem, specifically in Isabella’s intense yearning for answers on what exactly has happened to Lorenzo. Lorenzo visits Isabella, as a vision, after his death, and explains:

‘I am a shadow now, alas! alas!’ (line 305).

Keats has used exclamatory sentences to represent that Lorenzo is just a figment. But, he is furthermore a ‘shadow’, which is a product of light. Lorenzo is evidently coming from the natural world, and not solely from Isabella’s imagination.

CONTEXTUAL LINK: The Romantic ideals that are represented here almost become contradictory – this therefore becomes a third perception of conflicting causes in the poem. The traditional Romantic traits portrayed here, such as Nature and the Imagination, are in competition inside of Isabella’s mind. And it is up to us, as the reader, to decipher which is more prominent in the poem: is Lorenzo actually ‘a [natural] shadow’, or is Isabella imagining him saying this?

The way that Keats is almost fighting with himself is very interesting. He has almost masked any of his own personal conflicts through this fictional, fantastical story. The imaginative nature that he has employed makes us view the world around us in a whole new way: are we all just shadows? Are we all just figments of someone else’s imagination? Imagine if, our world is someone else’s imagination. Maybe this is what Keats did in Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil.

Bibliography

Book:

Keats, J. (2007). Selected Poems. London: Penguin Classics.

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