The poem works as what can be said to be an allegorical level and arguably, it can be linked to Keats’s own feelings about women and love who was known to desire women but was also terrified of the dependence and commitment they brought. Keats opens ‘Isabella’ with great exclamations as he introduces his two protagonists, “fair…poor simple” Isabella and the “young palmer”, Lorenzo. Along with these characters, within the first stanza, Keats presents the idea of love as a sickness describing it as a “malady”, and this concept was clearly held by Keats as it can be linked to the “ail” of the knight in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’.Order now
We are told of how Isabella and Lorenzo longed for one another from a distance and shared a mutual unspoken attraction, introducing the concept of them as courtly lovers to the reader. The idea of love as a disease is emphasised further when their attraction is later noted as “sick longing”. What is noticeable about Lorenzo is that as a lover, he lacks resolution and let “honeyless days…did he let pass”, showing him to be too passive. Being written in ‘ottava rima’ has meant that the verse form of ‘Isabella’ produces a highly stylised mood, and this mood is emphasised by the frequent use of antithesis and repetition.
‘The Eve of St Agnes’ opens and closes with age and death and is a narrative poem in which the narrative impulse repeatedly leads towards description. As mentioned before, it is a poem rich in imagery and description, which is accentuated with the use of the Spenserian stanza. In addition to this, the poem is also recognised for its varied and sensual imagery and synaesthetic intensity. Thematically, the poem has thought to be structured around a series of contrasts, the most notable one being between dream and reality.
The world of the young lovers might understandably be thought of as a dream world, but throughout the poem, the reader is constantly reminded of how they are living in an environment where everything opposes their circumstance. What links the two narrative poems, ‘Isabella’ and ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, is that the love affairs are illicit ones, fraught with danger if the outside world should discover them. The two pairs of lovers are all breaking rules of custom and convention, reaching out for a special intensity of love and pleasure which exposure will destroy.
Where the female figure in each poem is concerned, the effect that they have upon the male figure is frequently described using words such as “ensnare” and “enthrall”, simultaneously conjuring the feelings of attracting and fear. This can be linked to Keats’s own feelings about women since he was saw them as infinitely desirable but also potentially treacherous. His letters to his sweetheart Fanny Brawne are known for their expression of intense love as well as a sense of anxiety. It is arguable that Keats is writing about himself in each of the poems, as it can be interpreted that the male figures all resemble him in some way, whether it be their humble beginnings, unluckiness in love or being socially unacceptable. The fate of the knight in ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ relates to Keats’s own fear of opening up to or appearing vulnerable women, whilst the humble Lorenzo in ‘Isabella’ is murdered after falling in love.
Keats’s ambivalent attitudes towards women demonstrate how he was very much a man of his time. It has been argued that in the earlier poems the temptation to escape the responsibility of adulthood is projected onto an entrancing female. Keats’s recognition that this temptation must be resisted is in turn suggested by the way he punished his male lovers, leaving them forlorn or wounded from an experience of love.
“The strains are also evident in the narrative poems, but here the damage to their poetic coherence can be greater. ‘Isabella’, in particular, must be counted as a failure. Keats himself thought little of it (‘A weak-sided Poem’, he called it, ‘with an amusing sober-sadness about it’), and it has numerous mishaps of taste, style and tone. Yet there are few poems in the language that show greater promise, and Keats deserves more credit than is usually given for the dramatic balance between the secret ceremony of love life and joy in the first half of the poem and of love, death and grief in the second.” “Of that larger effort to find a completely satisfying image which integrates movement and stillness, time and eternity, mortality and immortality, we can say that he did finally achieve what he was seeking.”
York Notes Advanced, John Keats Selected Poems Longman Literature Guides, Critical Essays on Keats poems and letters Diane Long Hoeveler’s article “Decapitating Romance: Class, Fetish and Ideology in Keats’s ‘Isabella’