Love, Laughter, Melancholia, and a Pot of Basil

It all started during an A level English Literature lesson.

As most of you know, not so very long ago, before I was lucky enough to secure an academic job, I was a secondary school English teacher. The best part of the job, for me, was teaching A level classes, because if the universe was on my side I’d get a great group with some sparky minds. One such group is memorable in several ways, but mostly because of the fixation that they (and eventually I) developed on a certain image.

A pot of basil.

But not just any old pot. The very pot that John Keats wrote about in the poem ‘Isabella, Or, The Pot of Basil’ (1818), which itself was influenced by Boccacio’s story in his great Decameron (c.1353).

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
‘Isabella and the Pot of Basil’

Now, my sixth form students were more than a little tickled by poor Isabella’s (or, in The Decameron, Lisabetta’s) agonised weeping over the basil-adorned, decapitated head of her lost lover. In fact, as the weeks progressed, their indignation and hysteria grew to alarming levels.

“This is ludicrous!” they would scream. “The woman has lost her marbles!”

“Such a normal reaction”, they’d blurt out, sardonically, “to chop off your lover’s head, bury it, and use it to fertilise your herbs. Great idea”.

It took some efforts to calm the classroom down on a few occasions, believe me. This was a story that had tested the credulity of these bright, streetwise 18 year olds to its limits.

But maybe I should rewind, for those of you who don’t know the story (and I’ll focus on Bocaccio’s version, here – spoiler alert).

Lisabetta lives with her brothers in a town called Messina, in Italy. They are rich, having inherited from their father, and employ a young servant named Lorenzo, who soon catches Lisabetta’s eye. Needless to say, the pair fall in love and embark on a secret affair, meeting at night and in amongst the beautiful gardens that Lorenzo tends. Her brothers become suspicious, discover the affair and, afraid that their young sister wishing to marry would deplete their riches, set forth on a “hunt” with Lorenzo one day, where they duly execute him in the woods. Once Lisabetta realises that Lorenzo is missing, she becomes distraught. In her angst one night she experiences a vision. Lorenzo appears, and reveals to her his murder and the location of his burial. Lisabetta determines to find her lost beloved, and soon finds the spot where Lorenzo’s body is hidden; her vision proving itself to be true. She digs. She finds him. In grief, she dismembers his head from his body and takes it home. She then buries the head in a pot and plants basil on the top, watering it incessantly with her tears. Her brothers are perplexed by their sister’s odd, weeping behaviour, so one night they steal the pot (which, incidentally has developed beautiful and flourishing herbs), discover the head, and flee the city in fear of being discovered as murderers.

My students were bemused.

The decapitation. The re-burial in horticultural fashion. The lamentation. The refusal to give up this pot of grief. The tears. The perpetual, agonising, desirous tears.

Why, they said, did Lisabetta just Not. Get. A. Grip?

It’s a good question. I’ll never look at basil plants in the same way, ever again, and I’ve been endeavouring to grow said herb (amongst others), for the first time, from scratch (i.e. not supermarket plants), and not to kill them. I don’t have a good record on the plant-growing front. But I feel a greater sense of will for the basil to flourish, than the rest, for some reason.


But what I find striking about the tale of the grieving Lisabetta is not so much the admittedly extreme head-removal-and-planting scenario, or even her copious weeping, but the growth and flourishing that ensues – the basil plant, ‘bathed’ in tears, is transformed into a ‘fair’ sight, with a ‘very sweet savour’:

“Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour”.

From The Decameron of Giovanni Boccacio (Day Four; the Fifth Story: Project Gutenberg).

As I have written about in The Conversation previously (here), lovesickness in the Middle Ages was considered to be a ‘real’ disease. The melancholic person was thought to be dominated by the humour of black bile, and to have a cold and dry constitution. Someone with a ‘naturally’ melancholic disposition was thought to be more likely to suffer from lovesickness.

So melancholic sadness, then, can in fact be deeply associated with love, and growth.

The 11th-century physician and monk, Constantine the African, translated a treatise on melancholia which was popular in Europe in the Middle Ages. He revealed the connection between melancholy and love:

The love that is also called ‘eros’ is a disease touching the brain … Sometimes the cause of this love is an intense natural need to expel a great excess of humours … this illness causes thoughts and worries as the afflicted person seeks to find and possess what they desire.

For Constantine, the ‘disease’ of love is brought about by the instinctive human need to ‘possess’ what one ‘desires’. Lisabetta refuses to give up her beloved Lorenzo, and takes rather drastic action to retain him and unite with him through her tears. But those tears are not wasted. Springing from a place of love, they nurture and feed the basil plant, creating new life.

Keats’ poem, ‘Isabella, Or The Pot of Basil’, takes up the theme with even greater elaboration:

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:
So that the jewel, safely casketed,
Came forth, and in perfumed leafits spread.

Here, Keats emphasises how Isabella’s mournful tears provide ‘Nurture’: life ‘from human fears’. The cycle of life, in a sense, is therefore never-ending. Though Isabella weeps, her tears take on a new function, themselves playing a part in helping the earth to continue in its regeneration.

The inextricability of humanity and the earth was taken as read in the Middle Ages, when all things were understood to be connected. This medieval diagram depicts the connection between the four elements (earth, air, water, fire), the seasons of the year, the human life cycle, and the constitution of the human body:


In medieval science and medicine, the human body is simply a microcosm of the universe.

Everything is linked. Everything has its place. Everything is ‘whole’ and fits together. Everything matters, from the sky to the people, to the grains of sand.

This is why I have read Margery Kempe’s (b. 1373) boisterous weeping as paradoxically productive (see here). Her tears for her beloved – the lost Christ – are not signifiers of endless futility, but of love, desire, and universal connectedness. In fact, Margery Kempe is horrified at the prospect of losing her tears, as such a state would signal a total separation from Christ:

“And þerfor, Lord, I schal not sesyn, whan I may wepyn, for to wepyn for hem plentyuowsly, spede ȝyf I may. And, ȝyf þu wylt, Lord, þat I sese of wepyng, I prey þe take me owt of þis world.” (1.57)

If her weeping were to “sese” [cease], she wishes to be taken out of the world, for her relationship with God would itself cease to be an active or productive one: Christ would no longer be present in her soul. In a similar way, when Julian of Norwich experienced great sickness and intense pain she described herself “as baren and as drye as [she] had never had comfort but litille.” Being dry – and in medieval terms, melancholic – is to be spiritually bereft; as Julian puts it, “baren”, and therefore non-productive: the opposite of flourishing and growing.

Modern science is beginning to explore the importance of human emotion and the science of crying. Recent hypotheses (shown here) have included the notion that tears trigger social bonding and human connection. Unlike other species, humans are born in a less developed state and therefore are more vulnerable. Even as adults, we still reveal our human helplessness sometimes. Another hypothesis is that tears caused by emotion (as opposed to, say, chopping onions) contain a higher quantity of proteins, making those tears more viscous, so they stick to the skin more strongly and run down the face more slowly, making them more likely to be seen by others. According to Michael Trimble, Professor of Neuroscience at UCL,

“The same neuronal areas of the brain are activated by seeing someone emotionally aroused as being emotionally aroused oneself. There must have been some point in time, evolutionarily, when the tear became something that automatically set off empathy and compassion in another. Actually being able to cry emotionally, and being able to respond to that, is a very important part of being human.”

The politics of crying has flooded (pardon the pun) the media in recent years. Whether the accusations of the fragile ‘white tears’ of women such as Mary Beard after her Twitter comments, or the multiple commentaries when ‘strong’ men, like Barack Obama, cry publicly, crying still means something.

Obama tears about gun laws
A powerful man cries: Barack Obama recalling the Sandy Hook shooting, when introducing the new gun laws in 2016

The fundamental paradox of tears, then, is that the emotion that they communicate – be that sadness, grief or anger – is always rooted in its opposite: in care, and love.

My 18 year old students writhed in laughter at Keats’ hyperbolic descriptions of Isabella’s lamentations. Such levels of crying and hugging of plant pots, they declared, was not a credible situation. And as for the decapitation of the dead lover, pulled from his grave, well that was simply ludicrous.

But it’s interesting how the demonstration of strong emotion in the poem created such strong emotions of disbelief and humour in the students, too.

Keats described Lorenzo’s dead body as remarkably human, still. Love, he says, is never “dethroned”:

With duller steel than the Persèan 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.

That image of Lisabetta, or Isabella, embracing the flourishing basil pot, is one that keeps returning to my mind. Maybe it’s why I have decided to become more of a gardener. I grew my own tomatoes for the first time this summer. There is something quite atavistic about cultivating something in nature and keeping it alive, watching it grow, putting something of yourself into it.

My tomatoes were delicious. I didn’t cry into the pots, but I did feel a strange ‘rootedness’ and calmness while tending to them. Like the medieval view of a fully-interconnected universe, I think we find those connections still, every day.

There is something hilarious about poor, desperate, weeping, digging, gardening, loving Isabella.

But there’s something pretty human about her, too.


my tomatoes
This summer’s tomato effort.

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