Fair Isabel, Poor simple Isabel!

Sunday, rainy, rainy Sunday. There’s very few students here in the library today, everybody is at home listening to the rain or watching football or whatever. It is the last week of Jan term, so things should pick up soon. I figure the old Sunday tradition of roulette should pass some time here today, on top of working on the digital collection for Japanese Interment (which I AM doing, but slowly). I got some random numbers, 3, 4, 8 and this time a direction, R. And end up with some good old poetry. Yay, my favorite.

Now I’ve heard of John Keats, never read any of his stuff so far though. So I opt for something on the safe side and pick out: John Keats: Selected Poetry.


(With a dreamy far off look in his eye).

I picked a random page and opened up to stanza 43 of Isabella; or the pot of basil. Which is labeled as a story from Boccaccio.

Here goes the excerpt:


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 hat 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 hat marr’d

And filling it once more with human soul?

Ah! This is holiday to what was felt

When Isabell by Lorenzo knelt.



She gaz’d into the fresh thrown mould, as though

One glance did full all its secret tell;

Clearly she saw, as other eyes would know

Pale limbs at the bottom a crystal well;

Upon the murderous spot she seem’d to grow,

Like a native lily of the dell:

Then with her knife, all sudden, she began

To dig more fervently than misers can.


(Keats, 1818)


WOW that’s pretty dark. Apparently young Isabella has lost her lover, and she just can’t take it anymore and in an attempt to see him one last time, even rotten and in death, she takes her old lady friend, marches out to the woods armed only with a small knife and begins to dig Lorenzo up. I assume this was her plan all along, but the dame had no idea what she was getting in for.


This raises many questions for me… What crazy kind of love it that? Is there anybody in your life that you could dig up with a knife if they died just to see them one last time? Is that passion or pure insanity? Is there even a line between the two? I know this is a poem, but I wonder if anybody on the face of this earth has ever really done this. I would assume so, it’s a big place, and humans have been around for a little while.


I don’t know their backstory, seeing as the poem is pretty long and I only opened to this one part of it. The poem is from 1818 and it’s an adapted poem from another Italian called The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio by Giovanni Boccaccio. The original work is actually on Project Gutenberg: helloooo public domain. If you feel like reading it check it out here.

The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Or if you want to check out the whole narrative poem and see how Isabella got into this whole hot mess and how it all pans out, here’s a link to a site with the full poem.

Isabella, or the pot of basil

And just in case you were curious about the man behind the work, here’s a short author bio:

John Keats was an orphan who studied medicine. He was an apothecary, but abandoned the profession to pursue his writings. He had financial problems and loss of loved ones throughout his life and saw life’s “vale of tears and substituted the concept as a ‘vale of soul making'” (Cook, 1996). (Now there’s a positive spin on things.) Keats died at the age of 25 from Tuberculosis.

Cook, E. (Ed.). 1996. John Keats: Selected Poetry. New York, NY; Oxford University Press.



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