Keats wrote Isabella because he wanted to produce a commercial success,

Keats wrote Isabella because he wanted to produce a commercial success,

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Keats wrote Isabella because he wanted to produce a commercial success,
but he also thought it was too smokeable, i.e. that critics would
ridicule it. What do you consider to be the positive aspects of the poem?

Why might it also have been susceptible to criticism?

‘Isabella; or the pot of basil’ was written soon after Keats had
attended lectures by a critic. The critic had suggested that a poetic
translation of the 14th century works by the Italian writer Boccaccio
‘could not fail in the present day’. Keats’s poem is based upon the
Italians story called the ‘Decameron’ in which Isabella’s love
strengthens due to her loss of her true love, Lorenzo, who her
brothers were unable to accept into the family and so disposed of him.
The fact that the poem is based upon someone else’s story may have got
the poem ridiculed by critics because it was not original; also Keats
was not yet a well established poet (as he was from a humble
background) and so he might have been ridiculed for using other
authors hard work just for profit and due to the fact that someone
else thought it would make money Keats may have been scorned as he
couldn’t come up with his own inventions. ‘Stealing’ ideas from
another may also have caused mocking at Keats’s ability to produce his
own works.

Another reason that Keats believed that his work was ‘too smokeable’,
in other words his poem would go up in smoke too easily, because the
critics may have thought that Keats would go to any lengths for fame,
even taking a well known fairy tale story and turning it into a money
maker for himself. In a letter written to his friend in October 1818
Keats revealed that fame was not on his agenda as he described himself
as a “camelion poet”, ‘camelion’ has connotations of something which
takes on the colours of its background in order to camouflage, in
other words, Keats was not interested in the conventional things of
poetry, he wanted to be invisible to others, but his work to be seen.
Keats did not want fame, but a reason for him believing his work would
be subject to ridicule is that others may have believed he was only
writing for fame.

When Keats was preparing for the publication of Isabella he condemned
it’s ‘inexperience’; ‘simplicity’ and ‘mawkishness’ in terms of its
language and the storyline, Keats may have just been covering for
himself and his reputation in case of ridicule, or his writing skills
had improved during the eighteen months prior to its publication, and

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so he looked back on it as inferior to his later poems. The idea of
‘inexperience’ can be viewed during the introduction of the poem,
which is quite nursery rhyme like in structure:

“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”

The use of repetition of ‘They could not’, along with the AB rhyming
structure can be viewed as quite an immature poetical approach, which
would be cause for ridicule, however, it is quite in tone with the
poem which is a fairy tale, and these are nursery rhyme like, and also
the repetition is a medieval feature and so keeps the poem in tone
with it’s original story time setting. However, it is an example of
one of Keats worries he held about Isabella’s publication. Also at the
time of writing the poem he was in need of money and so his heart and
soul may not have been involved so much in this one as his other work,
because it was developed for a very different reason to Keats’s normal
love of poetry.

Keats’s friends thought well of the poem, and this may have been
because it suggests that beauty can be found in the darker aspects of
life, and so this shows that Keats stuck to what he and other Romantic
poets alike believed in writing about, negative capability. Negative
capability is when a poet takes inspiration from not only the
beautiful and cheerful things, for example life, and then contrasts
them with inspiration from ideas such as death.

“Nurture besides, and life, from human fears,

From the fast mouldering head there shut from view:

So that the jewel, safely casketed,

Came forth, and in perfuméd leafits spread”.

This quotation highlights the main source of negative capability
viewed in Isabella, from the heart-rending death of Lorenzo; Keats
describes a positive effect which this has placed into the world,
which is life. Although it is not human life, which Isabella (as
described in stanza forty seven) realised could not happen with
Lorenzo, even after she had invested everything on him, it is the life
of a plant. The basil which she had placed his decomposing head in is
thriving upon the dead head and Isabella’s tears of grief for her
loss. Negative capability holds quite a powerful message that all
events in life have positive and negative ideas attached to them, and
as Keats stuck to his usual techniques of poetry, he has made the
story into his own and so this would not be subject to ridicule,
especially among his circle of Romantic writer friends who would use
negative capability in their own work.

At the time of writing this poem Keats was already experiencing love,
and it was also in a vaguely similar situation to that of Lorenzo and
Isabella, because he was forbidden to love Fanny Brawne and so this
could have fuelled his ideas for the poem along with the original
story. Therefore, this poem should not have been susceptible to
criticism because Keats may have been writing down his feelings upon
his own love in the form of two characters, and it wasn’t just
‘stealing’ another’s work, he was adapting a story that connected with
his life and filling it with his passion. This is viewed in a letter
to Fanny when Keats identified with Lorenzo:

“In my present state of Health I feel too much separated from you and
could almost speak to you in the words of Lorenzo’s Ghost to Isabella:

Your beauty grows upon me and I feel

A greater love through all my essence steal.”

However, it could have been that after all his own criticism when
Keats was ill he finally appreciated this poem as he could identify
with it more.
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