Friday, June 10, 2022

The pot of basil


Basil (Ocimum basilicum, Sw: Basilika), a tender plant native to India and South East Asia. Possibly Africa, too; internet sources are a bit inconsistent about that. Anyway, the bulk of other Ocimum species are African. 

I have read that wild populations of Ocimum basilicum * live in dry scrubland, which seems so unlikely that I suppose it must be true. My own pot of basil, at any rate, requires daily watering. I was supposed to be eating it but got too interested in watching the plant develop. (If you grow basil for the leaves, you should pinch out the flower heads when they start to emerge.) Basil has been cultivated as a culinary and medicinal herb for thousands of years. 

[* Not to be confused with the species whose vernacular English name is Wild Basil (Clinopodium vulgare); a plant that's native to Europe and N. America as well as N. Africa and W. Asia.]

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.

(Isabella reburies the head of her murdered lover Lorenzo. From John Keats, Isabella, Or The Pot Of Basil).  


The unsettling tone of Keats' Boccaccio poem has been extensively discussed. I enjoyed looking through these essays:

Jack Stillinger, 'Keats and Romance', Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Vol. 8, No. 4, Nineteenth Century (Autumn, 1968), pp. 593-605.

Louise Z. Smith, 'The Material Sublime: Keats and "Isabella"', Studies in Romanticism Vol. 13, No. 4 (Fall, 1974), pp. 299-311.

Susan Wolfson, 'Keats's "Isabella" and the "Digressions" of "Romance"', Criticism Vol. 27, No. 3 (summer, 1985), pp. 247-261.

Kurt Heinzelman, 'Self-Interest and the Politics of Composition in Keats's Isabella', ELH
Vol. 55, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 159-193. 

Diane Long Hoeveler, 'Decapitating Romance: Class, Fetish and Ideology in Keats's Isabella', Nineteenth-Century Literature Vol. 49, No. 3 (Dec., 1994), pp. 321-338.

Michael Lagory, 'Wormy Circumstance: Symbolism in Keats's "Isabella"', Studies in Romanticism
Vol. 34, No. 3, On Keats in 1995 (Fall, 1995), pp. 321-342.

Isabella, 1849 painting by John Everett Millais

[Image source: Wikipedia . Millais was just nineteen when he painted it. Now in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.]

These brethren having found by many signs
   What love Lorenzo for their sister had, ... (XXI)

Keats gave no further details. Millais imagined the discovery occurring at the dinner table. 

To the right, Lorenzo offers Isabella half a blood orange (unwittingly portending his own decapitation). Isabella's brothers (left) observe the intimacy of Lorenzo and Isabella. The brother at the front vents his rage by kicking the dog and pulverizing a nut in the nutcrackers. The other two seem to be meditating a more controlled but no less deadly approach. 

Lorenzo's face stands out as the only one not in profile. His gaze is haunting; even frightening, in a sickly devotional vampiric sort of way. I feel some sympathy with the brothers for wanting to shield their Isabella from it. 

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, sketch by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1868 painting by William Holman Hunt

[Image source: Wikipedia .]

Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, 1877 painting by Joseph Severn

[Image source:,-or-the-Pot-of-Basil,-1877-.html . Over half a century before he painted this, Joseph Severn had been Keats'  close friend; they probably met in 1816, and it was Severn who later accompanied the dying Keats to Italy.] 

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1897 painting by John White Alexander

[Image source: . John White Alexander (1856 - 1915) was born in Pennsylvania. This painting is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.]

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907 painting by John William Waterhouse

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, painting by George Henry Grenville Manton

[Image source: . George Henry Grenville Manton (1855 - 1932) was a Hertfordshire painter. This painting is in Wycombe Museum. I haven't been able to find a date for it.]


Keats wrote Isabella between February and April 1818. The story came from Boccaccio's Decameron (Day 4, No 5). [Keats did not work directly from Boccaccio's Italian text, but from The Novels and Tales of the Renowned John Boccacio, 5th edn, 1684; an anonymous translation first published in 1620 and attributed to John Florio.]

Keats retold the story in ottava rima. This stanza form was actually Boccaccio's invention, but he did not use it in the Decameron, which was in prose. Keats was pretty likely to have come across it in, say, John Harington's 1591 translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. But it had come back into prominence the previous year, when John Hookham Frere anonymously published his satiric poem, with the complicated title The Monks and the Giants: Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work, supposedly by "William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stow-Market, in Suffolk, Harness and Collar-Makers". The title is offputting, but the poetry is not.

I think that Poets (whether Whig or Tory)
   (Whether they go to meeting or to church)
Should study to promote their country's glory
   With patriotic, diligent research;
That children yet unborn may learn the story,
   With grammars, dictionaries, canes and birch:
It stands to reason -- this was Homer's plan,
And we must do -- like him -- the best we can.

(Proem, stanza VII)

The poem caught Byron's eye, and the result was Beppo, published on 28 February 1818. 

'Tis known, at least it should be, that throughout
   All countries of the Catholic persuasion,
Some weeks before Shrove Tuesday comes about,
   The people take their fill of recreation,
And buy repentance, ere they grow devout,
   However high their rank, or low their station,
With fiddling, feasting, drinking, dancing, masquing,
And other things which may be had for asking.

(Stanza I)

Keats would likely have read one of these recent poems if not both, and he has been criticized for failing to attain their urbanely cutting wit, especially when he steers close to raillery or satire ("Great wits in Spanish, Tuscan, and Malay" (XVII)). Then, or in the preceding stanza where Keats bludgeons away at "Why were they proud?" (XVI), the comparison with Byron is damaging. 

The criticism might be unfair. Keats was evidently not attempting to write in the vein of Frere or Byron; for example, his poem has few feminine rhymes, and those of the most commonplace kind. More likely he was aiming at something like a Chaucerian flexibility, receptive to many changes of mood, and I think he achieves it. And in such passages as the digging up of Lorenzo's body he got to a place beyond Chaucer, never mind Byron. 

But he could not be urbane: he was no middle-aged diplomat or glamorous young lord. He really loathed the brothers' capitalist exploitation and he wrote from the heart, as in the lovely letter to Fanny Brawne of which an appalled Matthew Arnold pronounced: "We have the tone, or rather the entire want of tone, the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity, of the merely sensuous man, of the man who 'is passion's slave.'" (I deeply love Arnold as a poet, but his literary criticism tends to infuriate me.)

I wondered if Keats, when he wrote Isabella, would have been familiar with the actual plant "Basile" that he found in the Boccaccio story (Decameron Day 4 No 5). 

Most likely, yes. Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary between 1810 and 1815, trained as a surgeon-apothecary at Guy's Hospital, and received his apothecary license in 1816. "Sweet Basil" was a plant that was grown in apothecaries' gardens: Nicholas Culpeper (The English Physician, 1652) had evidently grown it himself, noting that "It must be sowed late, and flowers in the heart of Summer, being a very tender plant". 

As for its properties, a cautious Culpeper found his authorities contradictory.  

This is the herb which all authors are together by the ears about, and rail at one another (like lawyers). Galen and Dioscorides hold it not fit to be taken inwardly; and Chrysippus rails at it with downright Billingsgate rhetoric; Pliny, and the Arabian physicians defend it.

For my own part, I presently found that speech true:

                           Non nostrum inter nos tantas componere lites.

And away to Dr. Reason went I, who told me it was an herb of Mars, and under the Scorpion, and perhaps therefore called Basilicon; and it is no marvel if it carry a kind of virulent quality with it. Being applied to the place bitten by venomous beasts, or stung by a wasp or hornet, it speedily draws the poison to it; Every like draws his like. Mizaldus affirms, that, being laid to rot in horse-dung, it will breed venomous beasts. Hilarius, a French physician, affirms upon his own knowledge, that an acquaintance of his, by common smelling to it, had a scorpion bred in his brain. Something is the matter; this herb and rue will not grow together, no, nor near one another: and we know rue is as great an enemy to poison as any that grows.

To conclude; It expels both birth and after-birth; and as it helps the deficiency of Venus in one kind, so it spoils all her actions in another. I dare write no more of it.

This account by Culpeper suggests that Sweet Basil had yet to find a place in the English kitchen. 

Keats is curiously insistent that Lorenzo and Isabella don't reveal their feelings to each other until May has passed into June (IV). In autumn Lorenzo is dead and Isabella "By gradual decay from beauty fell" (XXXII). Their love, like Sweet Basil itself, was a tender plant. 

NB "Sweet Basil" is the variety commonly grown and used in cooking, at least in Europe and N. America. There are about sixty other varieties. 


şimdi orda buzlar eriyordur
yürümek istiyordur donmuş sular
sen bir odun atıyorsundur ateşe
bir odun daha

derken kış uyanıyor
bir akarsuda.

burda neler olduğunu kestirmek zor
elinde kitap olan bir adam
terkedilmiş bir bahçeye bakıyor
savaş haberleriyle uyanıyoruz

ihanete mi uğradık dağlarda
bir halk kendini tanımaya mı çalışıyor?

seni orda sanıyordum
güneşli pencerelerden mi çıkıp geldin
ellerin hâlâ fesleğen kokuyor?


there the ice must be melting now
the frozen waters wish to walk again
you must be putting a log on the fire
and perhaps another
just then in the river
winter awakens.

it is difficult to establish what has happened here
a man with a book in his hand
staring out at an abandoned orchard
we wake to news of war.
were we betrayed in the mountains
was a people struggling to know itself?

I thought you were there
have you come from the sun filled windows
your hands still smelling of basil?

(by Salih Bolat, b. 1956 in Adana. (Translator not specified.) Poem Source.)

A question the box of earth
still asks the kitchen,


as in a pot of,
where the lover's head

explodes into new 
ideas, as in

chop the loss finely,
add salt and stew

and halo the old charred
grandmother stove,


(from Sandra M. Gilbert's "Basil" (1997). Poem Source.)

An Ode to Basil

In Grecian myth
Good fortune springs
From all Sweet Basil brings.

It grows and thrives
In pot or ground
Wherever Sun is found.

Its perfumed leaves
Will bring you cheer
Throughout its growing Year.

And freshly picked
From fragrant bunch,
It makes a great Spaghetti lunch!

(Inge Meldgaard's "An Ode to Basil" (2011). Poem Source.)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger