Narrative poetry is as old as the old literature in the world. It is of communal origin, full of action and dramatic vigour. Originally, it used to be recited to the accompaniment of music.
We have four narrative poems—not counting Hyperion, which is epic rather than narrative and these are : Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, Lamia and The Eve of St. Mark. Isabella is taken from The Deacmeron of Bocaccio : The Eve of St. Agnes is based on the superstition traditionally associated with St. Agnes’ Eve ; Lamia takes its inspiration from a medieval superstition ; while The Eve of St. Hark deals with the superstition associated with St. Mark’s Eve.
The objective element in the poems under consideration is unmistakable, Keats does have one of the essential characteristics of the story-teller ; he successfully effaces himself in the story that he narrates. Yet though he does not obtrude his personality, the stories are intensely subjective in tone, for in them Keats gives his own idealistic interpretation of the legends and the superstitions he handles. Moreover, the never misses the opportunity of illustrating his favourite principle—the workship of beauty and the supreme delight that beauty brings to the minds and hearts of men. There is no denying the fact that Keats’s narrative poems are of a high order of excellence.
Isabella, his first narrative poem, was a great success. The story in the early section of the poem suffers somewhat from a comparison with its original Boccaccio. In the latter part, however, Keats shows a greater mastery of his instrument, and his handling of the ghost and the gruesome details of the digging up of the body of the murdered lover, show a distinct improvement on Boccaccio. The pathos and the tenderness of the story are treated by Keats’s in proper manner. In the hands of Keats, the tale of Isabella gains all the best lyric loveliness of attendant detail and all the delicacy and wealth of music which it has gathered in Shakespeare and Marlowe.