From Poems published in 1820, edited with introduction and notes by M. Robertson. Clarendon Press, 1909.
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In Lamia and Hyperion, as in Endymion, we find Keats inspired by classic story, though the inspiration in each case came to him through Elizabethan writers. Here, on the other hand, mediaeval legend is his inspiration; the ‘faery broods’ have driven ‘nymph and satyr from the prosperous woods’. Akin to the Greeks as he was in spirit, in his instinctive personification of the lovely manifestations of nature, his style and method were really more naturally suited to the portrayal of mediaeval scenes, where he found the richness and warmth of colour in which his soul delighted.
The story of Isabella he took from Boccaccio, an Italian writer of the fourteenth century, whose Decameron, a collection of one hundred stories, has been a store-house of plots for English writers. By Boccaccio the tale is very shortly and simply told, being evidently interesting to him mainly for its plot. Keats was attracted to it not so much by the action as by the passion involved, so that his enlargement of it means little elaboration of incident, but very much more dwelling on the psychological aspect. That is to say, he does not care so much what happens, as what the personages of the poem think and feel.
Thus we see that the main incident of the story, the murder of Lorenzo, is passed over in a line —‘Thus was Lorenzo slain and buried in,’ the next line, ‘There, in that forest, did his great love cease,’ bringing us back at once from the physical reality of the murder to the thought of his love, which is to Keats the central fact of the story.
In the delineation of Isabella, her first tender passion of love, her agony of apprehension giving way to dull despair, her sudden wakening to a brief period of frenzied action, described in stanzas of incomparable dramatic force, and the ‘peace’ which followed when she
Forgot the stars, the moon, the 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 —
culminating in the piteous death ‘too lone and incomplete’— in the delineation of all this Keats shows supreme power and insight.
In the conception, too, of the tragic loneliness of Lorenzo’s ghost we feel that nothing could be changed, added, or taken away.
Not quite equally happy are the descriptions of the cruel brothers, and of Lorenzo as the young lover. There is a tendency to exaggerate both their inhumanity and his gentleness, for purposes of contrast, which weakens where it would give strength.
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; 10
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; 20
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.”— 30
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.” 40
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, 50
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 60
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: 70
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. 80
All close they met again, before the dusk
Had taken from the stars its pleasant veil,
All close they met, all eyes, 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, 90
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, 100
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 110
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. 120
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, 130
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 140
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, 150
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. 160
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, 170
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, 180
“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; 190
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 indoor lattice, all delight. 200
“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.
Goodbye! I’ll soon be back.”—“Goodbye!” 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 210
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 220
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; 230
To-day thou wilt not see him, nor tomorrow,
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?” 240
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, 250
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 260
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 270
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. 280
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 290
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 300
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, 310
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.” 320
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; 330
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; 340
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, 350
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. 360
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, 370
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, 380
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 390
To speak:— O turn thee to the very tale,
And taste the music of that vision pale.
With duller steel than the Perséan 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. 400
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, 410
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; 420
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: 430
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. 440
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! — 450
It may not be-those Baälites 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: 460
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; 470
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. 480
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 your “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; 490
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. 500
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!”
Metre. The ottava rima of the Italians, the natural outcome of Keats’s turning to Italy for his story. This stanza had been used by Chaucer and the Elizabethans, and recently by Hookham Frere in The Monks and the Giants and by Byron in Don Juan. Compare Keats’s use of the form with that of either of his contemporaries, and notice how he avoids the epigrammatic close, telling in satire and mock-heroic, but inappropriate to a serious and romantic poem.
l. 2. palmer, pilgrim. As the pilgrim seeks for a shrine where, through the patron saint, he may worship God, so Lorenzo needs a woman to worship, through whom he may worship Love.
l. 21. constant as her vespers, as often as she said her evening-prayers.
l. 34. within . . . domain, where it should, naturally, have been rosy.
l. 46. Fever’d . . . bridge. Made his sense of her worth more passionate.
ll. 51–2. wed To every symbol. Able to read every sign.
l. 62. fear, make afraid. So used by Shakespeare: e.g. ‘Fear boys with bugs,’ Taming of the Shrew, I. ii. 211.
l. 64. shrive, confess. As the pilgrim cannot be at peace till he has confessed his sins and received absolution, so Lorenzo feels the necessity of confessing his love.
ll. 81–2. before the dusk . . . veil. A vivid picture of the twilight time, after sunset, but before it is dark enough for the stars to shine brightly.
ll. 83–4. The repetition of the same words helps us to feel the unchanging nature of their devotion and joy in one another.
l. 91. in fee, in payment for their trouble.
l. 95. Theseus’ spouse. Ariadne, who was deserted by Theseus after having saved his life and left her home for him. Odyssey, xi. 321–5.
l. 99. Dido. Queen of Carthage, whom Aeneas, in his wanderings, wooed and would have married, but the Gods bade him leave her.
silent . . . undergrove. When Aeneas saw Dido in Hades, amongst those who had died for love, he spoke to her pityingly. But she answered him not a word, turning from him into the grove to Lychaeus, her former husband, who comforted her. Vergil, Aeneid, Bk. VI, l. 450 ff.
l. 103. almsmen, receivers of alms, since they take honey from the flowers.
l. 107. swelt, faint. Cf. Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida, iii. 347.
l. 109. proud-quiver’d, proudly girt with quivers of arrows.
l. 112. rich-ored driftings. The sand of the river in which gold was to be found.
l. 124. lazar, leper, or any wretched beggar; from the parable of Dives and Lazarus.
stairs, steps on which they sat to beg.
l. 125. red-lin’d accounts, vividly picturing their neat account-books, and at the same time, perhaps, suggesting the human blood for which their accumulation of wealth was responsible.
l. 130. gainful cowardice. A telling expression for the dread of loss which haunts so many wealthy people.
l. 133. hawks . . . forests. As a hawk pounces on its prey, so they fell on the trading-vessels which put into port.
ll. 133–4. the untired . . . lies. They were always ready for any dishonourable transaction by which money might be made.
l. 134. ducats. Italian pieces of money worth about 4 s. 4 d. Cf. Shylock, Merchant of Venice, II. vii. 15, ‘My ducats.’
l. 135. Quick . . . away. They would undertake to fleece unsuspecting strangers in their town.
l. 137. ledger-men. As if they only lived in their account-books. Cf. l. 142.
l. 140. Hot Egypt’s pest, the plague of Egypt.
ll. 145–52. As in Lycidas Milton apologizes for the introduction of his attack on the Church, so Keats apologizes for the introduction of this outburst of indignation against cruel and dishonourable dealers, which he feels is unsuited to the tender and pitiful story.
l. 150. ghittern, an instrument like a guitar, strung with wire.
ll. 153–60. Keats wants to make it clear that he is not trying to surpass Boccaccio, but to give him currency amongst English-speaking people.
l. 159. stead thee, do thee service.
l. 168. olive-trees. In which (through the oil they yield) a great part of the wealth of the Italians lies.
l. 174. Cut . . . bone. This is not only a vivid way of describing the banishment of all their natural pity. It also, by the metaphor used, gives us a sort of premonitory shudder as at Lorenzo’s death. Indeed, in that moment the murder is, to all intents and purposes, done. In stanza xxvii they are described as riding ‘with their murder’d man’.
ll. 187–8. ere . . . eglantine. The sun, drying up the dew drop by drop from the sweet-briar is pictured as passing beads along a string, as the Roman Catholics do when they say their prayers.
l. 209. their . . . man. Cf. l. 174, note. Notice the extraordinary vividness of the picture here — the quiet rural scene and the intrusion of human passion with the reflection in the clear water of the pale murderers, sick with suspense, and the unsuspecting victim, full of glowing life.
l. 212. bream, a kind of fish found in lakes and deep water. Obviously Keats was not an angler.
freshets, little streams of fresh water.
l. 217. Notice the reticence with which the mere fact of the murder is stated — no details given. Keats wants the prevailing feeling to be one of pity rather than of horror.
ll. 219–20. Ah . . . loneliness. We perpetually come upon this old belief — that the souls of the murdered cannot rest in peace. Cf. Hamlet, I. v. 8, &c.
l. 221. break-covert . . . sin. The blood-hounds employed for tracking down a murderer will find him under any concealment, and never rest till he is found. So restless is the soul of the victim.
l. 222. They . . . water. That water which had reflected the three faces as they went across.
l. 223. convulsed spur, they spurred their horses violently and uncertainly, scarce knowing what they did.
l. 224. Each richer . . . murderer. This is what they have gained by their deed — the guilt of murder — that is all.
l. 229. stifling: partly literal, since the widow’s weed is close-wrapping and voluminous — partly metaphorical, since the acceptance of fate stifles complaint.
l. 230. accursed bands. So long as a man hopes he is not free, but at the mercy of continual imaginings and fresh disappointments. When hope is laid aside, fear and disappointment go with it.
l. 241. Selfishness, Love’s cousin. For the two aspects of love, as a selfish and unselfish passion, see Blake’s two poems, Love seeketh only self to please, and, Love seeketh not itself to please.
l. 242. single breast, one-thoughted, being full of love for Lorenzo.
ll. 249 seq. Cf. Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind.
l. 252. roundelay, a dance in a circle.
l. 259. Striving . . . itself. Her distrust of her brothers is shown in her effort not to betray her fears to them.
dungeon climes. Wherever it is, it is a prison which keeps him from her. Cf. Hamlet, II. ii. 250–4.
l. 262. Hinnom’s Vale, the valley of Moloch’s sacrifices, Paradise Lost, i. 392–405.
l. 264. snowy shroud, a truly prophetic dream.
ll. 267 seq. These comparisons help us to realize her experience as sharp anguish, rousing her from the lethargy of despair, and endowing her for a brief space with almost supernatural energy and willpower.
l. 286. palsied Druid. The Druids, or priests of ancient Britain, are always pictured as old men with long beards. The conception of such an old man, tremblingly trying to get music from a broken harp, adds to the pathos and mystery of the vision.
l. 288. Like . . . among. Take this line word by word, and see how many different ideas go to create the incomparably ghostly effect.
ll. 289 seq. Horror is skilfully kept from this picture and only tragedy left. The horror is for the eyes of his murderers, not for his love.
l. 292. unthread . . . woof. His narration and explanation of what has gone before is pictured as the disentangling of woven threads.
l. 293. darken’d. In many senses, since their crime was (1) concealed from Isabella, (2) darkly evil, (3) done in the darkness of the wood.
ll. 305 seq. The whole sound of this stanza is that of a faint and far-away echo.
l. 308. knelling. Every sound is like a death-bell to him.
l. 316. That paleness. Her paleness showing her great love for him; and, moreover, indicating that they will soon be reunited.
l. 317. bright abyss, the bright hollow of heaven.
l. 322. The atom . . . turmoil. Every one must know the sensation of looking into the darkness, straining one’s eyes, until the darkness itself seems to be composed of moving atoms. The experience with which Keats, in the next lines, compares it, is, we are told, a common experience in the early stages of consumption.
l. 334. school’d my infancy. She was as a child in her ignorance of evil, and he has taught her the hard lesson that our misery is not always due to the dealings of a blind fate, but sometimes to the deliberate crime and cruelty of those whom we have trusted.
l. 344. forest-hearse. To Isabella the whole forest is but the receptacle of her lover’s corpse.
l. 347. champaign, country. We can picture Isabel, as they ‘creep’ along, furtively glancing round, and then producing her knife with a smile so terrible that the old nurse can only fear that she is delirious, as her sudden vigour would also suggest.
st. xlvi-xlviii. These are the stanzas of which Lamb says, ‘there is nothing more awfully simple in diction, more nakedly grand and moving in sentiment, in Dante, in Chaucer, or in Spenser’— and again, after an appreciation of Lamia, whose fairy splendours are ‘for younger impressibilities’, he reverts to them, saying: ‘To us an ounce of feeling is worth a pound of fancy; and therefore we recur again, with a warmer gratitude, to the story of Isabella and the pot of basil, and those never-cloying stanzas which we have cited, and which we think should disarm criticism, if it be not in its nature cruel; if it would not deny to honey its sweetness, nor to roses redness, nor light to the stars in Heaven; if it would not bay the moon out of the skies, rather than acknowledge she is fair.’—The New Times, July 19, 1820.
l. 361. fresh-thrown mould, a corroboration of her fears. Mr. Colvin has pointed out how the horror is throughout relieved by the beauty of the images called up by the similes, e.g. ‘a crystal well,’ ‘a native lily of the dell.’
l. 370. Her silk . . . phantasies, i.e. which she had embroidered fancifully for him.
l. 385. wormy circumstance, ghastly detail. Keats envies the unself-conscious simplicity of the old ballad-writers in treating such a theme as this, and bids the reader turn to Boccaccio, whose description of the scene he cannot hope to rival. Boccaccio writes: ‘Nor had she dug long before she found the body of her hapless lover, whereon as yet there was no trace of corruption or decay; and thus she saw without any manner of doubt that her vision was true. And so, saddest of women, knowing that she might not bewail him there, she would gladly, if she could, have carried away the body and given it more honourable sepulture elsewhere; but as she might not do so, she took a knife, and, as best she could, severed the head from the trunk, and wrapped it in a napkin and laid it in the lap of the maid; and having covered the rest of the corpse with earth, she left the spot, having been seen by none, and went home.’
l. 393. Perséan sword. The sword of sharpness given to Perseus by Hermes, with which he cut off the head of the Gorgon Medusa, a monster with the head of a woman, and snaky locks, the sight of whom turned those who looked on her into stone. Perseus escaped by looking only at her reflection in his shield.
l. 406. chilly: tears, not passionate, but of cold despair.
l. 410. pluck’d in Araby. Cf. Lady Macbeth, ‘All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,’ Macbeth, V. ii. 55.
l. 412. serpent-pipe, twisted pipe.
l. 416. Sweet Basil, a fragrant aromatic plant.
ll. 417–20. The repetition makes us feel the monotony of her days and nights of grief.
l. 432. leafits, leaflets, little leaves. An old botanical term, but obsolete in Keats’s time. Coleridge uses it in l. 65 of ‘The Nightingale’ in Lyrical Ballads. In later editions he altered it to ‘leaflets’.
l. 436. Lethean, in Hades, the dark underworld of the dead. Compare the conception of melancholy in the Ode on Melancholy, where it is said to neighbour joy. Contrast Stanza lxi.
l. 439. cypress, dark trees which in Italy are always planted in cemeteries. They stand by Keats’s own grave.
l. 442. Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy.
l. 451. Baälites of pelf, worshippers of ill-gotten gains.
l. 453. elf, man. The word is used in this sense by Spenser in The Faerie Queene.
l. 467. chapel-shrift, confession. Cf. l. 64.
ll. 469–72. And when . . . hair. The pathos of this picture is intensified by its suggestions of the wife- and mother-hood which Isabel can now never know. Cf. st. xlvii, where the idea is still more beautifully suggested.
l. 475. vile . . . spot. The one touch of descriptive horror — powerful in its reticence.
l. 489. on . . . things. Her love and her hope is with the dead rather than with the living.
l. 492. lorn voice. Cf. st. xxxv. She is approaching her lover. Note that in each case the metaphor is of a stringed instrument.
l. 493. Pilgrim in his wanderings. Cf. st. i, ‘a young palmer in Love’s eye.’
l. 503. burthen, refrain. Cf. Tempest, I. ii. Ariel’s songs.
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