Decameron: The Pot of Basil

This story by Boccaccio inspired a poem by John Keats: Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. You can read Keats's English poem here: Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil. Boccaccio in turn had based his story on a Sicilian folksong and, as you will see, the story is set in Messina, Sicily.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Decameron unit. Story source: The Decameron by Boccaccio, translated by J. M. Rigg (1903).

The Pot of Basil
(Filomena: Day 4, Story 5)
The king then laid the burden of discourse upon Filomena, who, thus began:

Know then that there were at Messina three young men that were brothers and merchants, who were left very rich on the death of their father, who was of San Gimignano, and they had a sister, Lisabetta by name, a girl fair enough, and no less debonair, but whom, for some reason or another, they had not as yet bestowed in marriage.

The three brothers had also in their shop a young Pisan, Lorenzo by name, who managed all their affairs and who was so goodly of person and gallant that Lisabetta bestowed many a glance upon him and began to regard him with extraordinary favour, which Lorenzo marking from time to time, gave up all his other amours, and in like manner began to affect her, and so, their loves being equal, 'twas not long before they took heart of grace, and did that which each most desired.

Wherein continuing to their no small mutual solace and delight, they neglected to order it with due secrecy, whereby one night as Lisabetta was going to Lorenzo's room, she, all unwitting, was observed by the eldest of the brothers, who, albeit much distressed by what he had learnt yet ,being a young man of discretion, was swayed by considerations more seemly and, allowing no word to escape him, spent the night in turning the affair over in his mind in divers ways.

On the morrow he told his brothers that which, touching Lisabetta and Lorenzo, he had observed in the night, which, that no shame might thence ensue either to them or to their sister, they after long consultation determined to pass over in silence, making as if they had seen or heard nought thereof, until such time as they in a safe and convenient manner might banish this disgrace from their sight before it could go further. Adhering to which purpose, they jested and laughed with Lorenzo as they had been wont, and after a while, pretending that they were all three going forth of the city on pleasure, they took Lorenzo with them and; being come to a remote and very lonely spot, seeing that 'twas apt for their design, they took Lorenzo, who was completely off his guard, and slew him, and buried him on such wise that none was ware of it.

On their return to Messina they gave out that they had sent him away on business; which was readily believed because 'twas what they had been frequently used to do. But as Lorenzo did not return, and Lisabetta questioned the brothers about him with great frequency and urgency, being sorely grieved by his long absence, it so befell that one day, when she was very pressing in her enquiries, one of the brothers said: "What means this? What hast thou to do with Lorenzo, that thou shouldst ask about him so often? Ask us no more, or we will give thee such answer as thou deservest."

So the girl, sick at heart and sorrowful, fearing she knew not what, asked no questions; but many a time at night she called piteously to him, and besought him to come to her, and bewailed his long tarrying with many a tear and, ever yearning for his return, languished in total dejection.

But so it was that one night, when, after long weeping that her Lorenzo came not back, she had at last fallen asleep, Lorenzo appeared to her in a dream, wan and in utter disarray, his clothes torn to shreds and sodden, and thus, as she thought, he spoke: "Lisabetta, thou dost nought but call me, and vex thyself for my long tarrying, and bitterly upbraid me with thy tears, wherefore be it known to thee that return to thee I may not because the last day that thou didst see me thy brothers slew me." After which, he described the place where they had buried him, told her to call and expect him no more, and vanished.

The girl then awoke and, doubting not that the vision was true, wept bitterly. And when morning came and she was risen, not daring to say aught to her brothers, she resolved to go to the place indicated in the vision and see if what she had dreamed were even as it had appeared to her. So, having leave to go a little way out of the city for recreation in company with a maid that had at one time lived with them and knew all that she did, she hied her thither with all speed, and, having removed the dry leaves that were strewn about the place, she began to dig where the earth seemed least hard. 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 so do, 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 her maid, and, having covered the rest of the corpse with earth, she left the spot, having been seen by none, and went home.

There she shut herself up in her room with the head, and kissed it a thousand times in every part, and wept long and bitterly over it till she had bathed it in her tears. She then wrapped it in a piece of fine cloth, and set it in a large and beautiful pot of the sort in which marjoram or basil is planted, and covered it with earth, and therein planted some roots of the goodliest basil of Salerno, and drenched them only with her tears or water perfumed with roses or orange-blossoms. And 'twas her wont ever to sit beside this pot and, all her soul one yearning, to pore upon it as that which enshrined her Lorenzo, and when long time she had so done, she would bend over it and weep a great while, until the basil was quite bathed in her tears.

Fostered with such constant, unremitting care and nourished by the richness given to the soil by the decaying head that lay therein, the basil burgeoned out in exceeding great beauty and fragrance. And, the girl persevering ever in this way of life, the neighbours from time to time took note of it, and when her brothers marvelled to see her beauty ruined and her eyes as it were evanished from her head, they told them of it, saying: "We have observed that such is her daily wont."

Whereupon the brothers, marking her behaviour, chid her therefore once or twice and, as she heeded them not, caused the pot to be taken privily from her. Which, so soon as she missed it, she demanded with the utmost instance and insistence and, as they gave it not back to her, ceased not to wail and weep, insomuch that she fell sick, nor in her sickness craved she aught but the pot of basil.

Whereat the young men, marvelling mightily, resolved to see what the pot might contain and, having removed the earth, they espied the cloth and therein the head, which was not yet so decayed but that by the curled locks they knew it for Lorenzo's head. Passing strange they found it, and, fearing lest it should be bruited abroad, they buried the head and, with as little said as might be, took order for their privy departure from Messina and hied them thence to Naples. The girl ceased not to weep, and crave her pot, and, so weeping, died.

Such was the end of her disastrous love but not a few in course of time coming to know the truth of the affair, there was one that made the song that is still sung: to wit:

A thief he was, I swear,
A sorry Christian he,
That took my basil of Salerno fair, etc.

[Although Boccaccio did not include the entire folksong, you can see the folksong here.]



(1400 words)







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