Last Updated on August 30, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
John Keats's poem "To the Nile" is a Petrarchan sonnet, comprising an octave following an abba abba rhyme scheme, and then a sestet adhering to a cdcdcd rhyme scheme. As with most traditional Petrarchan sonnets, the point at which the sestet takes over from the octave, the so-called volta, indicates the moment of change in the poem. In this case, the mood of the poet shifts from one of reverie and contemplation, addressing the Nile directly and considering how far it deserves its "honor" and reputation, to a more decisive, down-to-earth mood, with the poet elucidating the ways in which the Nile is not dissimilar to any of "our" (English) rivers.
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This poem was written in the early nineteenth century, a time when modern English had long since taken over from the Early Modern language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. However, Keats employs archaic diction in this poem which seems to accord with both the traditional sonnet form—popularized in England in the Elizabethan court—and the subject matter. In the first octave of the sonnet, Keats addresses the Nile River directly, utilizing the archaic pronouns "thou" and "thee" to personify it. In addressing the Nile in this way, Keats is using a rhetorical device called apostrophe, in which a poet addresses an abstract concept or idea, or a person who is not present. The use of apostrophe and personification, combined with such archaic diction as "'twixt," "swart," and "dost," serve to create a sense that the poem is almost a prayer, its language somewhat biblical. This is reinforced by the lavish descriptions Keats applies to the river, such as in the opening line with its reversed syntax—"Son of the old Moon-mountains African!" The river, described as a son of the mountains and a "chief" of Pyramid and Crocodile, is elevated almost to the status of a deity, with the capitalization of "Pyramid" and "Crocodile" creating a sense that these singular words refer to abstract ideas. The Nile is a representative of the land of the ancient and impressive pyramids —and a land in which, in fact, the crocodile has long been associated with spirituality, as in the form of the Egyptian crocodile deity Sobek. In order to be chief of such ancient and important creations as the pyramids, the tombs of the kings, and of creatures like the revered and holy Nile crocodile, the River Nile must be majestic indeed.
In the second half of the poem, however, after the volta, Keats shifts away from this idea of the Nile as a deity. On the contrary, he begins to question whether the river that has played "nurse" to "swart nations" since the beginning of time truly deserves its reputation as fruitful and worthy of honor. This metaphor, of the river as "nurse," is a reference to the fact that the Nile running through Egypt is the key source of irrigation for farmland, as well as the source of the water of life for all the peoples of the area. It nurtures the local people as a nurse would. However, after twice repeating the word "fruitful," Keats contrasts this with the phrase "barren waste," suggesting that the fruitfulness of the River Nile is nothing but an illusion. Keats suggests that it is only because the Nile is the only river for many miles that it is able to "beguile" those who take sustenance from it into believing that it is unique. The use of the word "beguile" here is an interesting one: it seems to prolong the idea that the Nile has some sort of otherworldly power, while at the same time questioning the river's right to such power. The idea of the river as fruitful is, Keats argues, one born of "fancies": any river that runs through a desert cannot be truly believed preternatural in its capacity to nurture. Keats suggests that the river is a symbol of "ignorance," something which cheerfully runs through a barren land without improving it in any way.
Keats creates a semantic field of barrenness and sparseness through the use of such words as "worn," "toil," "rest," "ignorance," "barren" and "waste." The repeated "w" and "t" sounds feel cut off and dry in the mouth, and Keats's words are frequently monosyllabic. In the final four lines of the poem, however, the sounds and sense of the sonnet change as the mood shifts. Gentler words such as "bedew" and "pleasant sunrise" accompany the repeated word "green" as the speaker describes the true bounty of the Nile—things which genuinely are the fruits of productive land. The Nile, Keats is suggesting, is indeed a river which runs "happily" to the sea. However, what he is indicating is that none of the bounty of the Nile is unique to that river. On the contrary, its greenness, its life, and its "pleasant" aspects are things which could equally be found in English rivers. The Nile is, after all, no deity, but simply a body of earthly water running to the sea, as all rivers do.