25 July 2022

Isabella and the pot of basil

Every month I have the joy of participating in a Zoom session with a group of Boston-area gardeners.  This past Sunday one person in the group mentioned that she had just returned from a visit to Greece where the basil had an unusually strong and pleasant flavor.  We have pots-full of basil on our deck, but it's all of one type, so I started looking up different strains of basil.  At the Wikipedia entry I encountered the image above of Isabella and the Pot of Basil - an 1868 painting by William Holman Hunt depicting a scene from John Keats' poem of the same name.
The painting portrays Isabella, unable to sleep, dressed in a semi-transparent nightgown, having just left her bed, which is visible with the cover turned over in the background. She drapes herself over an altar she has created to Lorenzo from an elaborately inlaid prie-dieu over which a richly embroidered cloth has been placed. On the cloth is the majolica pot, decorated with skulls... [with the basil]. Her abundant hair flows over the pot and around the flourishing plant, reflecting Keats's words that Isabella "hung over her sweet Basil evermore,/And moistened it with tears unto the core." Behind her, next to the doorway, are a pair of pattens, next to the edge of a cassone.
As an old English major, I was intrigued by the reference to a Keats poem with which I was unfamiliar, so I looked for more examples.  Here is a rendition by George Grenville Henry Manton (1855-1932), from the Wycombe museum:

And one by John William Waterhouse (1908):

And a fourth one, by Edward Reginald Frampton, in which the basil pot is actually placed on a religious altar:

The final step was to locate the Keats poem, which I found in an old Modern Library edition down in a basement bookcase.

Keats' Isabella: or the Pot of Basil (1818) is a 43-stanza narrative poem based on a story from Boccaccio's Decameron, about a young woman who falls in love with Lorenzo, who is of lower social class.  Isabella's brothers "resolved in some forest dim/To kill Lorenzo, and there bury him."

The spirit of Lorenzo appears at Isabella's bedside:

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....

The spirit tells Isabella what really happened, and in the morning Isabella wakes up energized and ready to do battle:

"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 evening in the skies"

The next morning with the assistance of a nurse, she sneaks out to the forest...

Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
   To dig more fervently than misers can...
At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
    And Isabella did not stamp and rave...
With duller steel than the Persian sword
They cut away no formless monster's head,
But one, whose gentleness did well accord
With death, as life...

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...
She wrapp'd it up; and for its tomb did choose
A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by,
And covered it with moss, and o'er it set
Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet. 

The basil thrives...

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. 

So the brothers steal the pot, break it, see Lorenzo's face, and flee the country to avoid murder charges.  Unfortunately the pot and Lorenzo's head do not make their way back to Isabel, who then spends the rest of her life grieving. 

Piteous she look'd on dead and senseless things,
     Asking for her lost Basil amorously...
And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
     Imploring for her Basil to the last...
Still is the burthen sung - "O cruelty,
To steal my Basil-pot away from me!"  

That's the story in a nutshell, and it explains why an image of a young woman hugging a pot with a plant in it was such a popular subject for Pre-Raphaelite painters.  To quote the immortal lines of Paul Harvey:  "And now you know... the rest of the story."

Addendum:  Here's the salient passage from Boccaccio's Decameron, courtesy of reader Bob the Scientist:
Not long after, the Nurse having brought her a large earthen potte, such as wee use to set Basile, Marjerom, Flowers, or other sweet hearbes in, and shrouding the head in a silken Scarfe, put it into the pot, covering it with earth, and planting divers rootes of excellent Basile therein, which she never watered, but either with her teares, Rose water, or water distilled from the Flowers of Oranges. This pot she used continually to sitte by, either in her chamber, or any where elsee: for she caried it alwaies with her, sighing and breathing foorth sad complaints thereto, even as if they had beene uttered to her Lorenzo, and day by day this was her continuall exercise, to the no meane admiration of her bretheren, and many other friends that beheld her.
Fulltext of the tale at Science Matters.


  1. By chance do you follow J. Kenji Lopez Alt? The onion burger has been a recent topic.

  2. Keats got it from Boccaccio's Decameron, Day 4 Novella 5. Dunno where Boccaccio got it from.

  3. Pasolini's version starts at 1;:10 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1LZEUcsZLA

  4. Easy location for the Decameron Isabella: https://blobthescientist.blogspot.com/2020/04/decamertwo.html which I stripped off Project Gutenberg's John Florio Translation: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52617/52617-h/52617-h.htm#The_three_Brethren_to_Isabella_slew_a_Gentleman_that_secretly_loved_her_His

    1. Excellent. I've excerpted one segment to insert as an addendum to the post. Thanks, Bob.

  5. I immediately thought of Boccaccio when I saw the picture, and was a bit surprised to find you citing Keats; I'd never read his poem. Interesting!

  6. I've also never run into the Keats poem, but I'm a huge fan of the pre-Raphaelites so I've come across two of the paintings and checked out the story.
    Related, you may find this of interest:

    "An Italian, through the oft smelling of an hearb called Basil, had a Scorpion bred in his braine, which did not only a long time grieve him, but also at the last killed him... Take heede therefore ye smellers of Basil."

    Thomas Lupton, A Thousand Notable Things (1595)

    Take heede therefore ye smellers of Basil

  7. Columnar basil is not a culinary herb. It's very nice to have in a pot on the patio. While passing the time with friends, pick off a leaf and crush it gently with your fingertips. Sniff the leaf from time to time. The senses are engaged.

  8. Is that the people version of cats at a catnip plant?

  9. I grow about a dozen containers of basil every year, placed around the perimeter of my patio. Basil is good for keeping mosquitoes away. Gently crush a few leaves by rubbing them between your palms, then run your hands over legs, arms, and the back of your neck. The smell is very nice and the effect lasts for a couple of hours. Cilantro works as well, but it tends to bolt rather quickly and it is a pain keeping new plants going all summer.

    Not sure if this would be effective against ticks?


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