Summarize the poem "To the Nile."

In the poem "To the Nile," Keats addresses the Nile, questioning whether it is truly "fruitful" or whether it is simply able to "beguile" those who live in the desert around it because it is the only source of water for many miles. Ultimately, however, the speaker puts these "fancies" behind him and praises the "green isles" of the river as it flows "happily" to the sea.

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The beginning of this Petrarchan sonnet examines the long and respected history of the Nile River. Its tone is formal and reverent as it alludes to the life-giving qualities of the river. The language conjures visions of the Greek God Nilus, who was in fact the god of the Nile River, and the speaker uses inversion in the first line to place an emphasis on place: Africa. Often thought of as the "cradle of civilization," the Nile River is associated with both "the Pyramid and Crocodile." The definite article is a reminder that the Nile is ruler over this land, serving as its ultimate "Chief." It cuts through areas of "desert" spaces, providing a birthplace for numerous nations since the beginning of the world. The Nile is the "nurse" of many nations, providing nourishment and sustenance.

Rhetorical questions begin to shift the tone of the poem, and in line 9, there is a definite change in the speaker's perception of the Nile. Instead of viewing the Nile much like a god, the speaker considers that "our rivers," likely referring to those in Keats's own native country of England, are just as "green." The Nile "dost taste / the pleasant sunrise," much the same as all rivers do each morning.

There is thus a sense that the Nile, like all rivers, connects us to the "sea" of life. Life-giving waters sustain us and connect us as we rest between the spaces "'twixt Cairo and Decan" along life's journeys.

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"To The Nile" is a Petrarchan sonnet, a fourteen-line poem adhering to a conventional rhyme scheme and structure. In Petrarchan sonnets like this one, there is a point of division between the first eight lines and the final six, marking a turning point in the poem.
Keats is addressing the Nile itself, an example of the technique of apostrophe, or appealing to something that is not present or cannot hear. Keats describes the Nile as the "Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile," addressing it almost as if it were a god. However, he quickly goes on to question why exactly the Nile is considered to be so fruitful. After all, a "desert" stretches as far as the eye can see, a desert in which "swart nations" have lived since the beginning of time.
Keats questions, then, whether the Nile really is especially fruitful, or whether it simply has the capacity to "beguile" everyone who lives in the vicinity, because the Nile is the only place for them to rest "twixt Cairo and Decan." Keats is pondering whether the Nile has been so hailed purely because those who encounter it are so grateful to come upon a river in a land of such desert.
However, at this point, the first octet ends and the tone of the poem changes. Keats expresses a hope that his "dark fancies" are wrong and dismisses them as "ignorance"—which is, itself, the cause of the land's barrenness. He concludes by stating that the Nile is the source of "green rushes" and "green isles," and that it rushes happily to the sea. He is keen to put behind him the dark idea that the Nile is not truly as great a river as is usually believed.
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"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."

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