Summarize the poem "To the Nile."  

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rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"To the Nile" is a sonnet written by John Keats about the Nile River in Egypt. As a Petrarchan sonnet, it divides into an octave (first eight lines) and a sestet (last six lines). In the octave, Keats addresses the Nile with second person pronouns: "thee" and "thou." He personifies or even deifies the river, calling it the son of the African Moon-mountains and the "Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile." Capitalizing "Pyramid" and "Crocodile" suggests those terms stand for more than a single structure or reptile; Keats presents the Nile as god of the world of men and animals. However, immediately upon conferring that honor upon the river, he begins to question whether the river deserves its reputation. He asks whether the river is really "fruitful," although that is commonly said. He proposes the river only "beguiles" men to revere it because it is the only game in town, so to speak. 

The beginning of the sestet is where the volta, or change, typically occurs in a Petrarchan sonnet. The perspective changes from what has only been suggested to a clear affirmation that the river is not as great as its reputation: "O may dark fancies err! They surely do." The speaker now claims that anything that "makes a barren waste" of everything around itself is "ignorance." By this he means that if the Nile were truly a god, its "fruitfulness" would extend into the deserts of Egypt, and the whole country, not just the Nile river's banks and delta, would be lush. The poet then goes on to describe the river as a mere river--not as anything to be revered. It has green islands and rushes, it gleams in the sun, and it flows to the sea, just "like our rivers," meaning England's. 

Interestingly, this poem was the result of a writing challenge that John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Percy Shelley engaged in one evening. They allowed 15 minutes for each poet to write a poem about the Nile River. Upon reading the other sonnets, Leigh Hunt, their host that evening, declared himself the loser. Shelley's contribution was "Ozymandias," which has become a well-known and beloved poem, but which certainly violated the rules of the contest by not discussing the Nile. Keats' poem is consistent with his love of lush nature scenes. It seems to have bothered him that the Nile, while providing some greenery to Egypt, was powerless to affect the "barren waste of all beyond itself."