O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Monday, January 17, 2011

Charles Montgomery Skinner, Isabel and the pot of basil


'Myths and Legends of Flowers,
Trees, Fruits, and Plants'
(c. 1911, by J.B. Lippincott Company)


C. M. Skinner

In his lifetime C. M. Skinner published some collections of myths, legends and folklore found inside the United States and across the world.
Here below there is a summary of  the story of Isabel and her pot of basil, which you can find in Skinner's collection: "Legends of Flowers'Myths and, Trees, Fruits, and Plants" (1911).  This story  is very old, it has been told even by Boccaccio in his "Decameron" (IV, 5).  But other writers and poets  have dealt with it more recently, too. John Keats wrote a narrative poem adapted from Boccaccio's story entitled "Isabel, or the pot of basil", and O. Wilde mentioned Isabel and her pot of basil in the last line of his ode 'The Grave of Keats' (dedicated to Keats, the youngest of the English Romantic poets).  The story became popular with Pre-Raffaelite painters, too, such as W. H. Hunt and Millais, who illustrated several episodes from it.

'Isabella', by John Everett Millais,  1849

Isabella was a maid of Messina who, left to her own resources by her rich brothers (always too absorbed in their business) found happiness in the company of Lorenzo, a manager working in their enterprises. The brothers soon were aware of the couple’s  meetings, but, wishing to avoid a scandal, they pretended not to know about them.  One day however, they invited Lorenzo to a festival outside of the city, and there they slew him. Then, they told their sister that Lorenzo had left for a long journey. But after days, weeks, even months, had passed, Isabel could no longer restrain her uneasiness, and asked when he would return. "What do you mean?" demanded one of the brothers. "What have you in common with such as Lorenzo?" His tone was rather threatening. Being very sad and disappointed, Isabella retired to her chamber full of fears and doubts and spent all the day there. But there, in her solitude, she called on her lover and made piteous moans asking him to return. And he did so; for when she had fallen asleep, Lorenzo's ghost appeared, pale and  with spots of blood on him. And he addressed her: "Isabella, I can never return to you, for on the day we saw each other last your brothers slew me." After telling where she might find his body, the ghost melted into air, and she awoke at once. Unable to shake off the impression of her dream, she fled to the scene of the tragedy, and there, in a space of ground recently disturbed, she came upon Lorenzo, lying as in sleep. At first she intended to move the corpse to holy ground, but on second thought – as this could show her discovery - she removed Lorenzo’s head with a knife, and, borrowing "a great and goodly pot," laid it therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth. Then she decided to plant some basil of Salerno in it. Day after day, it was her great comfort to watch the growing plant sprung from her lover's flesh, and water it with essences and orange water, but oftener with tears. And so with love and care, the plant grew strong and filled the room with sweetness. Her persistent home-staying and the pallor of weeping led the brothers to wonder, and, thinking to cure her of a mental malady, they took away the plant of basil. As a result Isabel started to cry unceasingly for its return, and the men, still puzzled about that strange situation, spilt the flower from its tub to find if she had hidden anything beneath its root. And in truth she had, as there they found the poor head which, by its fair and curling hair, they recognized to be Lorenzo's. Realizing that the murder had been discovered, they buried the relic anew, and immediately fled to Naples. Isabella died of heart-emptiness, still  lamenting her pot of basil. 

Isabel and the pot of basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868

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