To The Nile

John Keats


John Keats

Nationality: English

John Keats was an English poet and one of the most important of the Romantics.

His work is often compared to Lord Byron’s and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s.

The sonnet, To The Nile, by John Keats, has been written in the Petrarchan style. This contains an ocatave (the first eight lines) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet (next six lines) rhyming cdcdcd.  In this sonnet, Line number 9 marks a change of thought. The poet seems to have woken up from his daydreaming of the charms of the Nile and starts to reflect on the natural beauty of the river. The poet through this sonnet directly addresses the Nile, in the style of his great Odes such as Ode to Autumn or the Ode on a Grecian Urn.

If we go through the history of the river Nile, it comes to know that this river is the cradle of one of the oldest civilizations in the world which was brought about alongside the Nile River.

The Nile River can also be related to the mythology of Hapi who was considered to be its chief God and is revered for flooding, this way bringing fruitfulness and fertility.

Being a lover of Greek mythology, Keats may have heard of the God Nilus. It was the Greek God of the Nile River and the travel agues of the English Explorers.

To The Nile
John Keats

Son of the old Moon-mountains African! Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile! We call thee fruitful, and that very while A desert fills our seeing's inward span: Nurse of swart nations since the world began, Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil, Rest for a space 'twixt Cairo and Decan? O may dark fancies err! They surely do; 'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste Of all beyond itself. Thou dost bedew Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste The pleasant sunrise. Green isles hast thou too, And to the sea as happily dost haste.
To The Nile by John Keats

To The Nile Analysis

Son of the Old Moon-Mountains African!

The sonnet, To The Nile, by John Keats begins with the line “Son of the Old Moon-Mountains African!” Through this line, the poet characterizes the Nile River as the “son” of the old African Moon-Mountains. That is to say, The Nile has its origin from the Moon Mountains quite like the River Mahaweli has its origin from the Sri Pada or the Adams Peak Mountain.

In this line, the poet uses the poetic technique of inversion wherein the word order is inverted or changed. Here you can see the inverted position of the adjective “African”. Grammatically, an adjective normally comes before the main noun, here it is, Moon-Mountains.

Besides, the poet also uses another technique of personification, that is; the river here is personified as the son of the Moon-Mountains which are like parents.

Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile

In the next line, the Nile is called as the Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile. The mention of Pyramid and Crocodile relates to the ancient Egyptians who would build pyramids as tombs for their kings and queens. They built these tombs with huge blocks of stones and transported them through the Nile River in barges to the pyramid sites. It might not have been possible otherwise to carry these stone blocks through the rugged desert lands spread hundreds of miles. Thus, the poet rightly calls the Nile, the Chief of the pyramids.

Now let’s talk about the crocodiles, you might know that there is world’s largest species of crocodiles in River Nile, especially its banks which abound these huge crocodiles. These crocodiles are also considered to be the God Osiris legends. Though it isn’t clear if the poet has used hyperbole or exaggeration in this line, he certainly has used the technique of contrast, for example the Pyramids, which are non-living things whereas the crocodiles are living things.

We call thee fruitful, and that very while

In the third line of this sonnet, the poet calls the Nile fruitful as the river is said to sustain life in the Nile Valley not just through food from fishing and agriculture but also by giving them a kind of transport and also by working as a playground for water sports. The Nile itself is a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

A desert fills our seeing’s inward span:

The third line says same as the fourth line. The poet through this line refers to his imagination which is filled with a desert. Imagination is at times called the “third eye” but the poet here refers it to “seeing’s inward span”. In fact this line indicates that our imagination consists of a desert whereas we are awe-struck at the fruitfulness of the river. So, barrenness and fruitfulness are correlated. They are in fact considered to be another wonder of nature.

Nurse of swart nations since the world began,

Through the next line, the poet means that the river Nile, since time immemorial, has been nourishing and providing food to the dark nations or the Africans. Not only has The Nile River provided life to one country but to a number of countries whereby it flows.

Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile

Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,

Rest for a space ‘twixt Cairo and Decan?

The next line of this sonnet begins with a rhetorical question which is also followed by another rhetorical question. Here the poet perhaps refers to temples built for Osiris which are stretched along the banks of the River.

The poet here wonders if the river Nile, through her magical charm, can make people believe and regard it as a holy river, such as the Ganges River in India. The poet also says that the river has a rest between Cairo and Decan. Where in Cairo the river ends in Decan it begins.

Keats, So far (in the octave), has reverently or respectfully treated the Nile. However, as the line number 9 begins with the sestet, we notice a ‘volta’ or a turn in the line of thought: The poet’s outlook to the Nile River gets changed from one of reverence to a realistic one.

O may dark fancies err! They surely do;

Through this line, the poet says that imagination or fancy can mislead us. Here we find Keats criticizing his own habit of day-dreaming or ‘negative capability’. So, the poet now starts doubting his “dark fancies” or his romantic fancy which carried him to the exotic lands of ancient Egypt of Pyramids, Pharaohs and the great Nile steeped in legends. The poet now becomes more ‘down-to-earth’ and starts exploring the River from an aesthetic or artistic viewpoint.

‘Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste

Of all beyond itself…’

In the above line, the poet wonders at his own ignorance or the ignorance of the Europeans whose ‘dark fancies’ about Africa mainly contained giant pyramids and long-stretched deserts. The poet, through the same line, even asks: “Art thou so fruitful?” Keats says his obsession with desert is as a result of the ‘ignorance’ of Nile valley’s fertility. He believes that the landscape is so fertile that it was claimed to have given birth to the first human civilization.

Thou dost bedew

Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste

The pleasant sunrise. Green isles hast thou too,

And to the sea as happily dost haste.

The poet, in these lines, starts viewing the River in all its splendid beauty when it majestically journeys or flows from its home to the sea. Here he likens the Nile to “our rivers” whose plants with long leaves or green rushes have been beautifully decked up with drops and dew of mist This beautiful visual image appeals to our eyes. The river also tastes ‘pleasant sunrise’. This is a blend of gustatory and visual images. The river also consists of “green isles”. The poet repeatedly uses ‘green’ to bring about an effect of lush greenery which is quite contrary to the repeated term of ‘desert’ in the octave.

The sonnet suitably ends with the line:

And to the sea as happily dost haste.

Though Keats wrote this poem in a very friendly sonnet, it is beautifully penned down with elevated language that is not only rich in meaning but in style, as well.

Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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