Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • He knew whose gentle hand was at the latch,
  • Before the door had given her to his eyes;
  • And from her chamber-window he would catch
  • Her beauty farther than the falcon spies;
  • And constant as her vespers would he watch,
  • Because her face was turn’d to the same skies;
  • And with sick longing all the night outwear,
  • To hear her morning-step upon the stair.


  • 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;


  • Until sweet Isabella’s untouch’d cheek
  • Fell sick within the rose’s just domain,
  • Fell thin as a young mother’s, who doth seek
  • By every lull to cool her infant’s pain:
  • “How ill she is, ” said he, “ I may not speak,
  • And yet I will, and tell my love all plain:
  • If looks speak love-laws, I will drink her tears,
  • And at the least ’twill startle off her cares.”


  • So said he one fair morning, and all day
  • His heart beat awfully against his side;
  • And to his heart he inwardly did pray
  • For power to speak; but still the ruddy tide
  • Stifled his voice, and puls’d resolve away —
  • Fever’d his high conceit of such a bride,
  • Yet brought him to the meekness of a child:
  • Alas! when passion is both meek and wild!


  • So once more he had wak’d and anguished
  • A dreary night of love and misery,
  • If Isabel’s quick eye had not been wed
  • To every symbol on his forehead high;
  • She saw it waxing very pale and dead,
  • And straight all flush’d; so, lisped tenderly,
  • “Lorenzo! ” — here she ceas’d her timid quest,
  • But in her tone and look he read the rest.


  • “O Isabella, I can half perceive
  • That I may speak my grief into thine ear;
  • If thou didst ever any thing believe,
  • Believe how I love thee, believe how near
  • My soul is to its doom: I would not grieve
  • Thy hand by unwelcome pressing, would not fear
  • Thine eyes by gazing; but I cannot live
  • Another night, and not my passion shrive.


  • “Love! thou art leading me from wintry cold,
  • Lady! thou leadest me to summer clime,
  • And I must taste the blossoms that unfold
  • In its ripe warmth this gracious morning time.”
  • So said, his erewhile timid lips grew bold,
  • And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme:
  • Great bliss was with them, and great happiness
  • Grew, like a lusty flower in June’s caress.


  • Parting they seem’d to tread upon the air,
  • Twin roses by the zephyr blown apart
  • Only to meet again more close, and share
  • The inward fragrance of each other’s heart.
  • She, to her chamber gone, a ditty fair
  • Sang, of delicious love and honey’d dart;
  • He with light steps went up a western hill,
  • And bade the sun farewell, and joy’d his fill.


  • All close they met again, before the dusk
  • Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil,
  • All close they met, all eves, before the dusk
  • Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil
  • Close in a bower of hyacinth and musk,
  • Unknown of any, free from whispering tale.
  • Ah! better had it been for ever so,
  • Than idle ears should pleasure in their woe.


  • Were they unhappy then? — It cannot be —
  • Too many tears for lovers have been shed,
  • Too many sighs give we to them in fee,
  • Too much of pity after they are dead,
  • Too many doleful stories do we see,
  • Whose matter in bright gold were best be read;
  • Except in such a page where Theseus’ spouse
  • Over the pathless waves towards him bows.


  • But, for the general award of love,
  • The little sweet doth kill much bitterness;
  • Though Dido silent is in under-grove,
  • And Isabella’s was a great distress,
  • Though young Lorenzo in warm Indian clove
  • Was not embalm’d, this truth is not the less —
  • Even bees, the little almsmen of spring-bowers,
  • Know there is richest juice in poison-flowers.


  • 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?


  • Yet were these Florentines as self-retired
  • In hungry pride and gainful cowardice,
  • As two close Hebrews in that land inspired,
  • Paled in and vineyarded from beggar-spies;
  • The hawks of ship-mast forests — the untired
  • And pannier’d mules for ducats and old lies — .
  • Quick cat’s-paws on the generous stray-away, —
  • Great wits in Spanish, Tuscan, and Malay.


  • How was it these same ledger-men could spy
  • Fair Isabella in her downy nest?
  • How could they find out in Lorenzo’s eye
  • A straying from his toil? Hot Egypt’s pest
  • Into their vision covetous and sly!
  • How could these money-bags see east and west? —
  • Yet so they did — and every dealer fair
  • Must see behind, as doth the hunted hare.


  • O eloquent and famed Boccaccio!
  • Of thee we now should ask forgiving boon,
  • And of thy spicy myrtles as they blow,
  • And of thy roses amorous of the moon,
  • And of thy lilies, that do paler grow
  • Now they can no more hear thy ghittern’s tune,
  • For venturing syllables that ill beseem
  • The quiet glooms of such a piteous theme.


  • Grant thou a pardon here, and then the tale
  • Shall move on soberly, as it is meet;
  • There is no other crime, no mad assail
  • To make old prose in modern rhyme more sweet:
  • But it is done — succeed the verse or fail —
  • To honour thee, and thy gone spirit greet;
  • To stead thee as a verse in English tongue,
  • An echo of thee in the north-wind sung.


  • These brethren having found by many signs
  • What love Lorenzo for their sister had,
  • And how she lov’d him too, each unconfines
  • His bitter thoughts to other, well nigh mad
  • That he, the servant of their trade designs,
  • Should in their sister’s love be blithe and glad,
  • When ’twas their plan to coax her by degrees
  • To some high noble and his olive-trees.


  • And many a jealous conference had they,
  • And many times they bit their lips alone,
  • Before they fix’d upon a surest way
  • To make the youngster for his crime atone;
  • And at the last, these men of cruel clay
  • Cut Mercy with a sharp knife to the bone;
  • For they resolved in some forest dim
  • To kill Lorenzo, and there bury him.


  • So on a pleasant morning, as he leant
  • Into the sun-rise, o’er the balustrade
  • Of the garden-terrace, towards him they bent
  • Their footing through the dews; and to him said,
  • “You seem there in the quiet of content,
  • Lorenzo, and we are most loth to invade
  • Calm speculation; but if you are wise,
  • Bestride your steed while cold is in the skies.


  • “To-day we purpose, ay, this hour we mount
  • To spur three leagues towards the Apennine;
  • Come down, we pray thee, ere the hot sun count
  • His dewy rosary on the eglantine.”
  • Lorenzo, courteously as he was wont,
  • Bow’d a fair greeting to these serpents’ whine;
  • And went in haste, to get in readiness,
  • With belt, and spur, and bracing huntsman’s dress.


  • And as he to the court-yard pass’d along,
  • Each third step did he pause, and listen’d oft
  • If he could hear his lady’s matin-song,
  • Or the light whisper of her footstep soft;
  • And as he thus over his passion hung,
  • He heard a laugh full musical aloft;
  • When, looking up, he saw her features bright
  • Smile through an in-door lattice, all delight.


  • “Love, Isabel!” said he, “I was in pain
  • Lest I should miss to bid thee a good morrow:
  • Ah! what if I should lose thee, when so fain
  • I am to stifle all the heavy sorrow
  • Of a poor three hours’ absence? but we’ll gain
  • Out of the amorous dark what day doth borrow.
  • Good bye! I’ll soon be back.” — “Good bye!” said she —
  • And as he went she chanted merrily.


  • 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.


  • There was Lorenzo slain and buried in,
  • There in that forest did his great love cease;
  • Ah! when a soul doth thus its freedom win,
  • It aches in loneliness — is ill at peace
  • As the break-covert blood-hounds of such sin:
  • They dipp’d their swords in the water, and did tease
  • Their horses homeward, with convulsed spur,
  • Each richer by his being a murderer.


  • 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.
  • Poor Girl! put on thy stifling widow’s weed,
  • And ’scape at once from Hope’s accursed bands;
  • To-day thou wilt not see him, nor to-morrow,
  • And the next day will be a day of sorrow.


  • She weeps alone for pleasures not to be;
  • Sorely she wept until the night came on,
  • And then, instead of love, O misery!
  • She brooded o’er the luxury alone:
  • His image in the dusk she seem’d to see,
  • And to the silence made a gentle moan,
  • Spreading her perfect arms upon the air,
  • And on her couch low murmuring “Where? O where?”


  • But Selfishness, Love’s cousin, held not long
  • Its fiery vigil in her single breast;
  • She fretted for the golden hour, and hung
  • Upon the time with feverish unrest —
  • Not long — for soon into her heart a throng
  • Of higher occupants, a richer zest,
  • Came tragic; passion not to be subdued,
  • And sorrow for her love in travels rude.


  • 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,


  • Because Lorenzo came not. Oftentimes
  • She ask’d her brothers, with an eye all pale,
  • Striving to be itself, what dungeon climes
  • Could keep him off so long? They spake a tale
  • Time after time, to quiet her. Their crimes
  • Came on them, like a smoke from Hinnom’s vale;
  • And every night in dreams they groan’d aloud,
  • To see their sister in her snowy shroud.


  • And she had died in drowsy ignorance,
  • But for a thing more deadly dark than all;
  • It came like a fierce potion, drunk by chance,
  • Which saves a sick man from the feather’d pall
  • For some few gasping moments; like a lance,
  • Waking an Indian from his cloudy hall
  • With cruel pierce, and bringing him again
  • Sense of the gnawing fire at heart and brain.


  • It was a vision. — In the drowsy gloom,
  • The dull of midnight, at her couch’s foot
  • Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb
  • Had marr’d his glossy hair which once could shoot
  • Lustre into the sun, and put cold doom
  • Upon his lips, and taken the soft lute
  • From his lorn voice, and past his loamed ears
  • Had made a miry channel for his tears.


  • Strange sound it was, when the pale shadow spake;
  • For there was striving, in its piteous tongue,
  • To speak as when on earth it was awake,
  • And Isabella on its music hung:
  • Languor there was in it, and tremulous shake,
  • As in a palsied Druid’s harp unstrung;
  • And through it moan’d a ghostly under-song,
  • Like hoarse night-gusts sepulchral briars among.


  • Its eyes, though wild, were still all dewy bright
  • With love, and kept all phantom fear aloof
  • From the poor girl by magic of their light,
  • The while it did unthread the horrid woof
  • Of the late darken’d time, — the murderous spite
  • Of pride and avarice, — the dark pine roof
  • In the forest, — and the sodden turfed dell,
  • Where, without any word, from stabs he fell.


  • Saying moreover, “Isabel, my sweet!
  • Red whortle-berries droop above my head,
  • And a large flint-stone weighs upon my feet;
  • Around me beeches and high chestnuts shed
  • Their leaves and prickly nuts; a sheep-fold bleat
  • Comes from beyond the river to my bed:
  • Go, shed one tear upon my heather-bloom,
  • And it shall comfort me within the tomb.


  • “I am a shadow now, alas! alas!
  • Upon the skirts of Human-nature dwelling
  • Alone: I chant alone the holy mass,
  • While little sounds of life are round me knelling,
  • And glossy bees at noon do fieldward pass,
  • And many a chapel bell the hour is telling,
  • Paining me through: those sounds grow strange to me,
  • And thou art distant in Humanity.


  • “I know what was, I feel full well what is,
  • And I should rage, if spirits could go mad;
  • Though I forget the taste of earthly bliss,
  • That paleness warms my grave, as though I had
  • A Seraph chosen from the bright abyss
  • To be my spouse: thy paleness makes me glad;
  • Thy beauty grows upon me, and I feel
  • A greater love through all my essence steal.”


  • 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;


  • “Ha! ha! ” said she, “ I knew not this hard life,
  • I thought the worst was simple misery;
  • I thought some Fate with pleasure or with strife
  • Portion’d us — happy days, or else to die;
  • But there is crime — a brother’s bloody knife!
  • Sweet Spirit, thou hast school’d my infancy:
  • I’ll visit thee for this, and kiss thine eyes,
  • And greet thee morn and even in the skies.”


  • When the full morning came, she had devised
  • How she might secret to the forest hie;
  • How she might find the clay, so dearly prized,
  • And sing to it one latest lullaby;
  • How her short absence might be unsurmised,
  • While she the inmost of the dream would try.
  • Resolv’d, she took with her an aged nurse,
  • And went into that dismal forest-hearse.


  • See, as they creep along the river side,
  • How she doth whisper to that aged Dame,
  • And, after looking round the champaign wide,
  • Shows her a knife. — “What feverous hectic flame
  • “Burns in thee, child? — What good can thee betide,
  • That thou should’st smile again?” — The evening came,
  • And they had found Lorenzo’s earthy bed;
  • The flint was there, the berries at his head.


  • 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 scull, 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.


  • She gaz’d into the fresh-thrown mould, as though
  • One glance did fully all its secrets tell;
  • Clearly she saw, as other eyes would know
  • Pale limbs at bottom of a crystal well;
  • Upon the murderous spot she seem’d to grow,
  • Like to a native lily of the dell:
  • Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
  • To dig more fervently than misers can.


  • Soon she turn’d up a soiled glove, whereon
  • Her silk had play’d in purple phantasies,
  • She kiss’d it with a lip more chill than stone,
  • And put it in her bosom, where it dries
  • And freezes utterly unto the bone
  • Those dainties made to still an infant’s cries:
  • Then ’gan she work again; nor stay’d her care,
  • But to throw back at times her veiling hair.


  • That old nurse stood beside her wondering,
  • Until her heart felt pity to the core
  • At sight of such a dismal labouring,
  • And so she kneeled, with her locks all hoar,
  • And put her lean hands to the horrid thing:
  • Three hours they labour’d at this travail sore;
  • At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
  • And Isabella did not stamp and rave.


  • Ah! wherefore all this wormy circumstance?
  • Why linger at the yawning tomb so long?
  • O for the gentleness of old Romance,
  • The simple plaining of a minstrel’s song!
  • Fair reader, at the old tale take a glance,
  • For here, in truth, it doth not well belong
  • To speak: — O turn thee to the very tale,
  • And taste the music of that vision pale.


  • With duller steel than the Persean sword
  • They cut away no formless monster’s head,
  • But one, whose gentleness did well accord
  • With death, as life. The ancient harps have said,
  • Love never dies, but lives, immortal Lord:
  • If Love impersonate was ever dead,
  • Pale Isabella kiss’d it, and low moan’d.
  • ’Twas love; cold, — dead indeed, but not dethroned.


  • In anxious secrecy they took it home,
  • And then the prize was all for Isabel:
  • 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.


  • Then in a silken scarf, — sweet with the dews
  • Of precious flowers pluck’d in Araby,
  • And divine liquids come with odorous ooze
  • Through the cold serpent-pipe refreshfully, —
  • She wrapp’d it up; and for its tomb did choose
  • A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by,
  • And cover’d it with mould, and o’er it set
  • Sweet basil, which her tears kept ever wet.


  • 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.


  • And so she ever fed it with thin tears,
  • Whence thick, and green, and beautiful it grew,
  • So that it smelt more balmy than its peers
  • Of basil-tufts in Florence; for it drew
  • Nurture besides, and life, from human fears,
  • From the fast mouldering head there shut from view:
  • So that the jewel, safely casketed,
  • Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread.


  • O Melancholy, linger here awhile!
  • O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
  • O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
  • Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us — O sigh!
  • Spirits in grief, lift up your heads, and smile;
  • Lift up your heads, sweet Spirits, heavily,
  • And make a pale light in your cypress glooms,
  • Tinting with silver wan your marble tombs.


  • Moan hither, all ye syllables of woe,
  • From the deep throat of sad Melpomene!
  • Through bronzed lyre in tragic order go,
  • And touch the strings into a mystery;
  • Sound mournfully upon the winds and low;
  • For simple Isabel is soon to be
  • Among the dead: She withers, like a palm
  • Cut by an Indian for its juicy balm.


  • O leave the palm to wither by itself;
  • Let not quick Winter chill its dying hour! —
  • It may not be — those Baalites of pelf,
  • Her brethren, noted the continual shower
  • From her dead eyes; and many a curious elf,
  • Among her kindred, wonder’d that such dower
  • Of youth and beauty should be thrown aside
  • By one mark’d out to be a noble’s bride.


  • And, furthermore, her brethren wonder’d much
  • Why she sat drooping by the basil green,
  • And why it flourish’d, as by magic touch;
  • Greatly they wonder’d what the thing might mean:
  • They could not surely give belief, that such
  • A very nothing would have power to wean
  • Her from her own fair youth, and pleasures gay,
  • And even remembrance of her love’s delay.


  • Therefore they watch’d a time when they might sift
  • This hidden whim; and long they watch’d in vain;
  • For seldom did she go to chapel-shrift,
  • And seldom felt she any hunger-pain;
  • And when she left, she hurried back, as swift
  • As bird on wing to breast its eggs again;
  • And, patient as a hen-bird, sat her there
  • Beside her basil, weeping through her hair.


  • Yet they contriv’d to steal the basil-pot,
  • And to examine it in secret place:
  • The thing was vile with green and livid spot,
  • And yet they knew it was Lorenzo’s face:
  • The guerdon of their murder they had got,
  • And so left Florence in a moment’s space,
  • Never to turn again. — Away they went,
  • With blood upon their heads, to banishment.


  • O Melancholy, turn thine eyes away!
  • O Music, Music, breathe despondingly!
  • O Echo, Echo, on some other day,
  • From isles Lethean, sigh to us — o sigh!
  • Spirits of grief, sing not you “ Well-a-way!”
  • For Isabel, sweet Isabel, will die;
  • Will die a death too lone and incomplete,
  • Now they have ta’en away her basil sweet.


  • Piteous she look’d on dead and senseless things,
  • Asking for her lost basil amorously;
  • And with melodious chuckle in the strings
  • Of her lorn voice, she oftentimes would cry
  • After the pilgrim in his wanderings,
  • To ask him where her basil was; and why
  • ’Twas hid from her: “ For cruel ’tis, ” said she,
  • “To steal my basil-pot away from me.”


  • And so she 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!”

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MLA Style: Works Cited

Keats, John. Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil. Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, by G. Kim Blank. Edition 3.26 , University of Victoria, 12 July 2023.

Chicago Style: Note

John Keats, Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil. Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.26 , last modified 12th July 2023.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Keats, John. Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil. Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.26 , last modified 12th July 2023.