Here’s a summary of John Keats’ poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil”.
What a sad poem! It’s very tragic and quite gothic too, kind of grotesque and beautiful and a bit absurd. Keats took the inspiration for this poem from Bocaccio’s story of the same name, and the narrative form of the poem makes it quite long to read! We’ve summarised the key elements of the plot below for you so that when you read through the full poem it’ll all make sense. Enjoy!
Lorenzo and Isabella are young Florentines, living in Florence, Italy during the Medieval era – at this time, Florence was one of the richest cities in the world and the banking capital of Europe. Isabella is of aristocratic heritage, and her brothers are wealthy – they are very set on preserving their wealth through marrying Isabella off to a rich suitor. Lorenzo is an unsuitable love interest for Isabella, as he is of a lower class – being employed by one of the brothers, he is not in their eyes wealthy enough to be considered a suitable match for her, either financially or in terms of social status.
Lorenzo knows this, so even though he loves Isabella he tries hard to keep it a secret – she feels the same, and represses her intense feelings for the same reason. They cry into their pillows, saying they can’t stand it any longer. Then one day, they are both sick from keeping their love to themselves, and Isabella faintly cries out Lorenzo’s name, being stressed by how sick he looks – this is enough for him to realise that she loves him back, and they begin a secretive relationship, meeting in secret trysts at dawn and dusk.
They have a brief moment of happiness, but then the brothers catch on to their love. Jealous and angry, they conspire to lead Lorenzo into a forest and brutally murder him. Then, they tell Isabella that he’s gone away to a far off land, and they don’t think that he’ll ever return. Isabella is heartbroken; her beauty and youth begin to wither away.
Lorenzo visits Isabella as a ghost, perhaps in a dream? And he reveals that he was murdered. With a maid, Isabella goes back to the forest and digs him up. She takes his head back to Florence with her and cries over it. To hide it but to keep it forever close, she buries it in a pot and plants basil over the top; she spends most of her free time crying into the pot, and as a result, it grows into the most beautiful basil in the whole kingdom.
The brothers eventually realise that the pot contains Lorenzo’s head, they steal it and Isabella becomes frantic, not understanding why they would take it from her. She dies soon afterwards.