"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sweet Basil Evermore

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1846
by English Pre-Raphaelite, William Holman Hunt (1827 - 1910)

Stanzas #32 and #53
from Isabella, or the Pot of Basil
by John Keats, English Romantic Poet (1795 - 1821)

In the mid days of autumn, on their eves
The breath of Winter comes from far away,
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. . . .

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.

Lorenzo and Isabella, 1849
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais (1829 - 1896)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1879
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John Melhuish Strudwick (1849 - 1937)

Poor Isabella, left with nothing but a pot of fragrant, flourishing basil to show for her devotion to honest Lorenzo. Wrapped in a fine cloth and buried deep within the skull - embellished urn is the severed head of Isabella's murdered lover. Not only do her heartless, jealous brothers kill Lorenzo, but they further deprive their distraught sister of the pot of basil, her only remaining connection to the love of her life, her sole tenuous link to sanity.

In Millais's portrayal of happier times (except for the presence of that grim waiter who appears to be in cahoots with the conniving brothers), the pot of basil can be seen behind the lovers, blooming on the garden wall. In Strudwick's more somber portrayal, you can see the ornate, but empty plant stand to Isabella's left and the evil brothers outside the window, sneaking off with the morbidly treasured pot of basil.

In this poem, Keats veers away from his lush autumnal imagery of "mellow fruitfulness," focusing instead on the death and decay of the season's end. The breath of winter is sickly and bereaved, rendering the landscape as hopeless as Lorenzo's head, as barren as Isabella's heart. A sad story. A beautiful plant (Ocimum basilicum).

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, 1907
by English Pre-Raphaelite, John William Waterhouse (1849 - 1917)
O Echo, Echo, from some sombre isle,
Unknown, Lethean, sigh to us - O sigh!
Spirits in grief, lift up your heads . . .
And make a pale light . . .

Sound mournfully upon the winds and low;
For simple Isabel is soon to be
Among the dead
from Stanzas #55 and #56


The esteemed essayist E. B. White (1899 - 1985) writes admiringly of his aging wife sitting in the autumnal garden:

" . . . hour after hour in the wind and weather . . . the small hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."

from E. B. White's Introduction (xix)
to Onward and Upward in the Garden
by Katharine S. White (1892 - 1977)
long-time fiction editor for the The New Yorker magazine

Plotting the resurrection.

Or to put it another way:

" A garden is evidence of faith.
It links us with all the misty figures of the past who also
planted and were nourished by the fruits of their planting."

~~Gladys Taber~~
American naturalist and columnist (1899 - 1980)
Author of the Stillmeadow Journals

For us as well, the chilly autumn breezes have begun to blow. The basil needs bringing in. Always one of our more successful crops, half will be hung to dry, the other half processed into pesto for freezing. It's thinning now, after several summer cuttings; but here's how it looked back in mid-July:

"Nothing can replace the shock of pleasure given by a small mountain of fresh basil in the summer kitchen."

~~Eleanor Perenyi~~
American gardener and writer (1918 - 2009)
Author of Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, November 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT: "Isabella & the Pot of Basil"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

1 comment:

  1. I think I can smell the basil just looking at your picture! Delightful!