By: Julien Gagnon
The thematic dynamics at play between life and death, and especially the inevitable convergence of these apparent binaries, are evoked by likening the words “womb” and “tomb” through rhyme. Shakespeare makes use of this rhyme in Romeo and Juliet, in which he writes that “The earth, that’s nature’s mother, is her tomb; / What is her burying grave, that is her womb” (2.3.9-10). Without making use of the rhyme, John Keats extensively explores the womb-tomb motif in his poem “Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil,” in which both productive and destructive imagery saturates the relationship between Isabella and her lover Lorenzo. Keats’ speaker situates productive forces of vitality, including sexual and maternal love, in proximity to—and at play with—forces of decay, such as sickness and death. In doing so, he bridges the disparity between these seemingly binary forces, revealing that life, love, and death are inextricably intertwined.
Throughout “Isabella,” Keats unites sexual and sickly language and presents them as ultimately inseparable. For instance, the poem’s floral imagery creates an image of venereal disease. In fantasizing about Isabella, Lorenzo says he “must taste the blossoms that unfold” (Keats 67) from her “ripe warmth” (68), and, that after they kiss, their happiness grows “like a lusty flower in June’s caress” (72). This sexually-charged image later becomes sickly when the flowers’ sweetness turns to “bitterness” (98) and they are transformed into “poison-flowers” (104). Thus, while sweet and sexually invigorating, the flowers are simultaneously a destructive force, which the eventual “wither[ing]” (449) of Isabella’s “ripe[ness]” (68) tellingly illustrates. In this sense, Keats likens the withering of flowers to Isabella’s corporeal decay: “sweet Isabella’s […] cheek” (33) turns from a flowery “rose” to a “sick [colour]” (34). Sustained floral imagery thereby introduces the proximity of sexual love and disease.
In turn, the sexual imagery of decay, in the absence of Isabella’s lover, becomes masturbatory and self-destructive. Isabella’s brothers tell her that Lorenzo has left her to attend to “some great urgency and need […] requiring trusty hands” (227-28). The coupling of “urgency,” “need,” and “hands,” is thereafter adopted by Isabella, who “weeps alone for pleasures not to be” (233), which evokes the failure of her lover to sexually please her in his absence. Being alone, Isabella is full of “misery” (235), and “sorely” (234) thinks of her lover as if masturbating: “his image in the dusk she seemed to see, / And to the silence made a gentle moan, / Spreading her perfect arms upon the air” (237-239). The word “moan” is significantly ambiguous, being a sound that expresses “physical or mental suffering or sexual pleasure” (OED “Moan”), thereby embodying both extremities of pleasure and suffering. This moan is ultimately unhealthy in its self-reflective nature, for the object of Isabella’s lust is absent, or rather, only present in her mind. In this sense, Isabella’s lust turns on to herself in a narcissistic way, which is portrayed as a threat to her corporeal unity. After this self-pleasing, Isabella thereby experiences a “feverish unrest” (Keats 244) and “by gradual decay” (256) begins to lose her beauty “because Lorenzo came not” (256); this phrasing evokes both Lorenzo’s physical absence, and subsequently, the fact that Isabella experiences orgasms while he does not. Thus, Isabella is transformed from an object of beauty into one decayed, for she sexually lacks Lorenzo and must turn her lust unproductively inwards, rather than outwards.
While Isabella’s self-satisfied lust is unproductive, her interactions with the dead body of Lorenzo are charged with sexual and, later, seemingly reproductive energy. Lorenzo’s ghost asks Isabella to “warm [his] grave” (316), to which she replies: “I’ll […] kiss thine eyes” (335). After unearthing Lorenzo’s body and cutting off his head, she “kissed [it] and wept” (408). This kissing is rendered even more necrophilic when Keats writes that “If Love impersonate was ever dead, / Pale Isabella kissed it and low moaned” (308-309), once again making use of the word moan both for its sexual and painful denotations. Isabella treats Lorenzo’s decapitated head “amorously” (490), as if the coupling of death and sex is inevitable. This necrophilia emerges as paradoxically reproductive when Isabella begins nurturing her lover’s head as if it were a child, while continuously treating it sexually. In fact, from the instant that Lorenzo and Isabella meet, sickness and death appear to inseminate her. The “malady” (4) of their love and their “sick longing” (23) for one another lends itself to the description of Isabella’s “full shape” (12) and her “echo[ing] of his name” (15). Thus, Isabella grows fuller, as if impregnated by the diseased love, and metaphorically bears Lorenzo’s child as an echo inheriting his name. Likewise, Isabella falls “sick” (34) from her love for him and turns “thin as a young mother” who seeks “to cool her infant’s pain” (35-36). In this manner, while Isabella is not physically pregnant—she remains sexually “untouched” (33)—the diseased nature of her love for Lorenzo manifests in her body as if she were pregnant. Significantly, not only does her body bear signs of a child, but the child itself is in “pain” (36) because of this sickly love, as if Isabella’s metaphorical venereal disease is transmitted to the child.
Subsequently, Keats evokes the womb-tomb motif by having Isabella’s diseased love produce a metaphoric child out of Lorenzo’s tomb. When Isabella goes to the forest to “find the clay, so dearly prized” (339) where Lorenzo is buried, she seeks to “sing to it one latest lullaby” (340). This lullaby suggests that Isabella views the grave, and her lover’s body within, as their child. Notably, she brings “with her an aged nurse” (343) to help exhume the body, and who, by extension, also helps her in the labour of giving birth to their child. Lorenzo’s tomb is his “earthly bed” (351), acting as the bed on which Isabella is to give birth. As Isabella goes into “labour” (379) with the help of the nurse, she finds Lorenzo’s glove, which she kisses and “put[s] it in her bosom” (372), “those dainties made to still an infant’s cries” (374). Thus, she brings a part of Lorenzo to her breasts, which are described in terms of their maternal, nourishing function. In this sense, as Isabella exhumes Lorenzo, she delusionally sees his body as their child—a child that can never exist because their love has not been consummated. Isabella’s misdirected and unproductive lust thereby corrupts not only her body but also her mind, as she treats Lorenzo’s head as an object of both maternal and sexual love.
Isabella thereafter fully adopts the maternal role by feeding her metaphoric child with her tears. Having “cut away” (394) Lorenzo’s decaying head from his body—as a baby is cut from its umbilical cord—Isabella places the severed head in a pot and plants basil atop it. She then “[feeds] it with thin tears” (425) and “it grew” (426) “for it drew / Nurture besides, and life” (428-29) from Isabella. Thus, Isabella nurtures the head and the basil growing from it as if it were a child, and her tears symbolically act as the milk given to a child from her aforementioned “bosom” (372). She spends all of her time at the basil’s side, just as a mother for her newborn, to “moisten[..] it with tears unto the core” (424), the core being Lorenzo’s head buried beneath. Whenever she would leave her “baby,” Isabella “hurried back as swift / As bird on wing to breast its eggs again” (469-470); here, the speaker explicitly describes her as a mother nurturing her child, despite the fact that her “egg” is the decapitated head of her lover. Thus, Isabella, “patient as a hen-bird” (471), gives her milk-tears to her dead lover-baby. This pairing of contrasting elements, a newborn with a dead lover, and tears of pain with a mother’s milk, firmly establishes the proximity and convergence of forces of vitality and forces of destruction. Indeed, as these forces are inextricably intertwined, “Isabella” suggests they are reliant on one another to exist.
John Keats surfaces the inextricable relationship between life and death in his poem “Isabella.” The poem interweaves destructive and productive forces to undermine both a causal and an antagonistic bridging of these binaries. The poem fuses the sexual and the painful, love and disease, pregnancy, nurturing, and death into an obscene array to portray their paradoxical complexities, rather than dismissing these elements as simple binaries that oppose or cause one another. The troubled nature of this amalgamation mirrors the troubled realities of love: that one does not stop loving or feeling sexual desire for a partner after their death; that one can nurture their grief in a productive way; that love is a disease of its own; and finally, that pain and pleasure, as with all intense emotions, are not as far apart as they might seem. In the end, even Isabella’s maternal love for the basil plant plays into these paradoxical binary pairings, for while she feeds the basil-baby from above with her living tears, Lorenzo’s rotting flesh feeds it from below, from within the pot.
Keats, John. “Isabella.” Romanticism: An Anthology, edited by Duncan Wu, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp. 1407-1423.
“Moan.” Oxford English Dictionary, 14 Oct. 2018, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/moan.
Shakespeare, William. “Romeo and Juliet.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, edited by Peter Alexander, HarperCollins, 2010, pp. 948-985.
Photo: “Life After Death,” Di Fruscia