What are the themes of John Keats' "To the Nile"?

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A literary work may have more than one theme, and the themes one reader finds in a piece may be different from those another reader finds. The important thing is that any theme you find must be consistent with the details of the text and its tone. To arrive at a theme, first be sure you understand the face value of the work.

In this sonnet by John Keats, he comments upon Egypt's Nile River. He begins by describing it in human and even god-like terms. Fruitfulness seems to be a major topic of the poem, being overtly addressed in lines 3 and 6 and suggested in line 10 by the opposite concept, barrenness. Keats raises the question of whether the Nile is actually fruitful, as it has been called. In line 9 he implies that such a perception of the Nile is in error. The reason is that everything "beyond itself" is "a barren waste." He ends the poem by describing the river as being "like our rivers," that is, like the rivers of England.

With this basic understanding of the content of the poem, we can move on to asking what universal truths about life or humankind it presents. At least two seem fairly obvious. First, although the river is presented as god-like initially, Keats goes on to attribute "ignorance" to it because of the barrenness of the desert country around the river, and in the end of the poem, it is equated to other rivers that are not god-like. A theme from this part of the poem would be that rivers can be appreciated for the green scenery they provide, but they have no power to change people's lives and should not be revered beyond the basic enjoyment they provide. Making this meaning symbolic, we could see a theme that often greatness is ascribed to things or people who don't really deserve it.

Next, considering how the topic of fruitfulness presents a theme, we can say that the poem suggests that real fruitfulness has the ability to enrich others, but any person or thing that enriches only itself is "ignorance." By extension, we can also say that those who revere something that is powerless to resolve the barrenness beyond itself are ignorant.

These are a few of the themes one can garner from John Keats' poem "To the Nile."

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