THE POT OF BASIL.
A STORY FROM BOCCACCIO.
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 in-door 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 to-morrow, 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 Persťan 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 Bašlites 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.