To the Nile Summary
“To the Nile” is a sonnet by John Keats in which the poet addresses the Nile River and questions whether or not its waters are truly worthy of praise.
- Keats calls out to the Nile and points to the barren lands surrounding the river.
- Though the Nile is often characterized as fruitful, Keats argues that it is in fact a deceiver, being the only site of respite for weary travelers.
- Keats compares the Nile to English rivers, concluding that it is no more special than any other river he has known.
Last Updated on August 30, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637
"To The Nile" is a sonnet by the English Romantic poet John Keats, composed on February 4th, 1818, when the poet was twenty-two, but not published until 1838, some seventeen years after Keats's death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-five. The poem was written as a result of a writing competition in which Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Leigh Hunt challenged each other to write a poem about the Nile River within the space of fifteen minutes. Shelley's contribution to the competition was the very well-known "Ozymandias," also a sonnet (although, while it shares some themes with Keats's poem, not at all related to the Nile). In structure, "To the Nile" is a Petrarchan rather than Shakespearean sonnet, comprising an octave (eight lines) followed by a sestet (six lines).
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In the opening two lines of the poem, Keats personifies (or rather, deifies) the Nile River, addressing it as "son of the old moon-mountains African!" then describing it as "Chief" of "the Pyramid" and the "Crocodile." These words are capitalized, suggesting that the river represents not single animals or structures, but the world of pyramids and crocodiles that is Egypt.
Keats notes that the river is usually described as "fruitful." However, he goes on to add that even while we describe the Nile as fruitful, all that can be seen around it is desert. He asks, then, whether it is true that the Nile is fruitful or whether this is actually a fallacious assumption. The river has been a "nurse of swart nations" for as long as anyone can remember, but the land around it remains dry. Keats poses his questions directly to the Nile, using the archaic pronouns "thee" and "thou" as forms of address.
Keats goes on to propose an alternative idea. He asks whether it is possible that the Nile simply has the power to "beguile" those who witness it, making them "honor" it because it is the only place to rest between "Cairo and Decan." He suggests that because those who are tired and "worn" find the Nile a suitable place to rest on their long journey, they "honor" the river even though it may not deserve this honor. It is considered a great river in Egyptian terms precisely because the country is so barren, such that the Nile appears more spectacular than it otherwise might.
At this point, we come to the end of the first octave and the second part of the sonnet, the sestet, begins. In a Petrarchan sonnet, this is called the volta of the poem, the point at which, traditionally, there comes a change or shift. Accordingly, Keats's approach shifts from the questioning mood of the earlier lines and becomes decisive. He states that "dark fancies err" when it comes to the Nile. He asserts that anything that "makes a barren waste" of everything around it must surely be ignorance. The suggestion here is, again, that the Nile is not anything worthy of honor or great dignity and that the reputation it has gained in this regard is a mere fancy connected to its capacity to "beguile."
In the closing four lines of the poem, Keats goes on to elaborate on this idea. He explains that the Nile has "green rushes" like English rivers do, has "green isles" in it, and rushes to the sea just as happily as an English river might. He is stating here that the Nile may have "pleasant" qualities, but in most ways it is much the same as any river in England, rather than being worthy of particular reverence. The Nile, like English rivers, witnesses the rise of the sun and causes green things to grow in it. It empties out into the sea toward which it "rushes." However, all rivers do this, so the Nile is not truly special or unique.