Isabella Or The Pot of Basil Analysis by John Keats

Keats claimed not to care for his most critically neglected long romance, Isabella; Or, The Pot of Basil (1818), calling the poem “mawkish,” “weaksided, with “an amusing sober-sadness about it.” He tried to dismiss the poem as “too smokeable” and worried that there was “too much inexperience of life, and simplicity of knowledge in it.”

While attempting a critical analysis, one is inclined to cite from” Decapitating Romance: Class, Fetish, and Ideology in Keats’s Isabella” by DIANE LONG HOEVELER.

As Diane states in her essay:

“I would claim that the poem can be read as an extended meditation on the three issues that haunted Keats throughout his life: class anxieties, his parents, and his own ambivalence toward the desire to be a popular poet, a romancer in the sentimental Gothic ballad tradition”

Certain biographical truths are known. Keats’s father was from a staunchly middle class family, who died while out riding when the eldest son John was nine years old. Keats’s mother who was above her husband in class married again two months later and lived to regret her rashness. She died of tuberculosis and in 1810, six years later. She was nursed devotedly during her lingering illness by her eldest son. Keats took medical courses under Thomas Hammond, an apothecary from 1810-1815.  He worked as a” dresser” in two London Hospitals. He dabbled in herbs, he assisted in amputations. He fled to poetry.

The central trope of the poem is the macabre head in the pot—called “the trace”– by Derrida. This is the residue of the father who both imprisons the son in the harsh actualities of the class system and offers a way out through the metaphorically transformative power of the knife/pen. This leads to the complex psychological ground of castration and decapitation.

In “Castration or Decapitation” Helene Cixous asks her reader;

“What is woman for man?”

She answers by way of stating that if man operates under the threat of castration then women operate under castration’s “displacement decapitation”. Woman is seen as the endless chatterer and thus is subjected to a culturally imposed silence. As Cixous says, the “Absolute Woman in Culture” is the hysteric who is prey to masculinity.

However   Cixous saw Isabella with other qualities such as tactility, disgorging and mourning for the property relations that circulate in her economy. She is not haunted by a “quest for origins” like the man but instead “takes up the challenge of loss in order to go on living.

Isabella, as the silenced (“decapitated”) heroine stands as one end in the polarized, gendered warfare that Keats captured in this text. Isabella represents the decapitated woman of Western culture, dispossessed and speechless, frozen in tableaux vivant, inhabiting a living museum of horrors.

Let us begin our examination of the poem by observing the two lovers-“Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel” and Lorenzo, “a young palmer in Love’s eye”;

Both lovers, though, are initially presented as suffering from” some malady” (1. 4); both “nightly weep” themselves to sleep (1. 8). In short, both are lovesick; but are we in the presence of a love between two adults of equal stature?

In the second stanza, Isabel is described only as a “full shape” (1. 12), the only object that the infantilized Lorenzo can see as he speaks to try to gain her attention and approval.

In the fifth stanza Isabel is compared to a “young mother” who is frustrated in her attempts” to cool her infant’s pain” (11.3 5-36). That “infant,” Lorenzo, is plagued by “the meekness of a child” (1. 47) as he contemplates his beloved’s superior social status. In short, Isabel and Lorenzo are presented to us in much the same manner as Keats’s other tabooed lovers. The male is once again in an inferior and infantilized position toward a higher-status woman (one only need recall the triple goddess Cynthia in Endymion L, a Belle Dame, Lamia, or Moneta).

When Lorenzo, however, finally does declare his love to Isabel, the language is filled with the imagery of the seasons (” ‘Love! thou art leading me from wintry cold, / Lady! Thou leadest me to summer clime'” [116. 5-66]), with the emphasis being on the deathliness of winter giving way to the growth and fertility of summer. The “great happiness” that the lovers share is then compared by the narrator to “a lusty flower in June’s caress” (11.7 1-72). Lorenzo’s salute to the seasons is ominous and foreboding, for we know as well as the lovers do that the seasonal wheel will turn yet again and that the flowers of June will be residue by September.

And indeed the lovers have only a brief season of happiness (stanzas 8-i 1) before the narrator presents two stanzas of general meditation on the hopelessness and brevity of love. And yet why, the narrator asks, do we endure such pain for such a brief period of love? Because a “little sweet” kills” much bitterness”(1.9 8), just as the bee knows that the “richest juice” is found “in poison-flowers” (1. 104).

Other poisoned/silenced women-Ariadne and Dido-stand as precursors to the fate of Isabel, while Lorenzo, we are told, is not even “embalm’d” for his troubles (1. 102). As readers of a well-known love story we may know the fate of our lovers before the poem begins, but the narrator cannot resist the temptation of warning us yet again in an attempt to make explicable-more controllable the impending tragedy.

Next come the so called “anti-capitalist” stanzas in which Isabella’s two brothers appear cartoon-like (stanza 14-18). They preside over “torched mines” and “noisy factories” (1.i08); they own slaves who are whipped as they work all day in a “dazzling river” (.iii); in wealth they are proud (1.121), but it has made them cowards too. In fact Keats states that they have gone against the nature of their births and have become like “two close Hebrews” (1.131).

They are now called “ledger-men” and this marks them as” Other” from Isabel and Lorenzo who are now figured as the “same” as in the sameness of members of a family. Isabel and Lorenzo as a mother/son or woman/worker dyad stand opposed to the two brothers.

Here the parallel is of Keats in relation to Abbey, and the larger culture. The identification reveals that Keats felt himself to be both” feminized” and” infantilized”, a “mankin” in Byron’s notoriously mocking use of the term.


The tale of murder and recovery refigures the Christian allegory in a particularly Keatsan fashion. Lorenzo becomes for Keats the Christ like poet, sacrificed by narrow class prejudices and condemned to live on in mutated form only after his premature death. This anxiety erupts in the ability of the brothers’ to see not only east and west, but also behind. (Stanza ll. 142-144).

Keats felt acutely, that his work would be judged not by its worth but what the critics considered his lower-middle class birth and “arriviste” social status. For Keats, this class issue extended to his parents’ life and was paramount in his mind.

The child-consciousness that is Lorenzo could not have known he had such formidable enemies. But Isabella the mother protector should have known. The blindness of the lovers, their simple naiveté, can only be explained as a species of magical thinking endemic in children.

This sort of magical thinking prepares the way for Isabella’s fetishist use of Lorenzo’s head as a talisman, a substitute child that she feeds with the milk of her tears.

The brothers’ cannot see Lorenzo as anything but a purchased commodity and see him as a threat to disrupt social class conventions. This pattern of thinking is described by Marx in “The Fetishism of Commodities”. Hence they feel the murder is justified to preserve their way of life.

However Isabella too is seen as a disruptive element. Her romance with Lorenzo (a servant), and by implication marriage, children and property issues pose a threat to her two brothers—a threat that prompts a heinous crime.

The vision of Lorenzo weeping at his tomb is “like a fierce potion”. Isabella’s gaze however rests on his hair—one of the most common of fetishist objects according to Freud. What is more uncanny about this scene is Lorenzo’s voice—“its piteous tongue” and “tremulous shake”. He has now returned to the voice of an infant. (ll. 282-87).

But the ghost of Lorenzo, like the vampiric hero, the demon lover of the Gothic ballad, has the power both to enchant Isabel with is “wild” eyes, “all dewy bright/ with love” (11.289 to 90) and to virtually draw a map to his grave (stanzas 37-38). The gaze here functions as a sort fetishist screen, suggesting to Isabel a return of the repressed, the resurgence of a theatre of phallocentric illusion. In hungrily feasting on the dead Lorenzo with her eyes she is entering a pathologized discourse, the Gothic ballad tradition-a male libidinal economy that can only script her as a consumer of the beautiful masculine cadaver.

Here we are in the realm of the dependent male lover coming back to life through the power of the primal and much stronger female body. Isabella attempts to reanimate the spirit of Lorenzo through the recovery of his head.

As Isabel grooms her prize, combing the “wild hair with a golden comb” (1. 403), cleaning the eye sockets, washing out the dirt with her own tears ,kissing and sighing over her prize all day long, we know ourselves to be in the presence of what is called a “borderline personality”.

The decapitation is a castration, and Isabella and Lorenzo (or what is left of him) stands as gender clichés, the very embodiments of what Cixous proffered as her vision of the sexes in Western culture.

We confront again the realisation that castration or decapitation stand as the fate of the sexes. It is our worst cultural nightmare that the phallus power can be severed; the tongue can be silenced. Both sexes fear that they actually do inhabit a world where their most basic identifications can be turned against them, where they are powerless to protect or speak for themselves.

The power of the passage resides in the deep psychological sources of pain that Keats touched as he probed the issue of boundaries. Just exactly when does the self separate from its other? At death or at birth? Or, as Keats suggests, are they not the same?

Lorenzo the lover may be dead, but the poem promises that something, some form of life and growth, can be salvaged, seized from the world of death. The poem refuses to mourn; it promises instead that activity generated by living bodies can redeem and renew the cycle of generation. As we read this image we know ourselves to be participating in a nostalgic recuperative gesture, the attempt of a child through magical thinking to reconstitute the life cycle as benign.

Poetic Devices:

This poem represents a transition between Endymion and the later great Odes. The poem is written in ottava rima stanzas – these stanzas have 8 lines, rhyming aba ba bcc

Rhyme is rarely forced in this poem, although it does not yet show the self-restraint and clearness of the later works.
This poem shows a decline in Hunt’s influence on Keats’s language. Instead the poem has a vigorous, consonantal verbal texture.
The repetition of the lines from stanza 55 in stanza 61 acts like a Greek chorus. The poem has a sensual and tender complexity, and strives to recreate a medieval atmosphere.
The poem represents the first successful narrative of Keats’s career, although it does have its problems. Keats pauses in the narrative at stanza 19 to apologise to Boccaccio for transforming his story, which shows that he is still struggling with his role as a poet.

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