To the Nile Themes

The main themes in “To the Nile” are the lure of the natural world, reverence and misplaced devotion, and fruitfulness and scarcity.

  • The lure of the natural world: Keats describes the Nile as both beauty and beguiler, stressing that the river is so often lauded for its abundance simply because it contrasts with its surroundings.
  • Reverence and misplaced devotion: Keats challenges the honor that is paid to the Nile and consequently raises questions on the nature of worship.
  • Fruitfulness and scarcity: By juxtaposing the lush Nile with the desert, Keats highlights the river’s ability to impress and deceive its visitors.


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Last Updated on August 30, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789

The Lure of the Natural World 

One of the key themes in "To the Nile" is the natural world, its beauty, and its capacity to intrigue and compel us. A poet of the Romantic school, Keats had a particular interest in nature and the feelings it could evoke in people. Interestingly, in this poem, Keats discusses the idea that the "fruitful" Nile River seems so wonderful because it represents a place of "rest" and beauty within a space of "desert" landscape stretching for many miles. He suggests that the river has a misleading capacity to "beguile" those who, tired from their travels, stop to rest near it—but it is, of course, the natural beauty of the river, as well as its grand and long-founded reputation as the "nurse" of nations, which encourages these feelings of devotion.

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Keats describes the river itself as a natural place of "green" beauty. He juxtaposes vital words such as "green," "bedew," and "rushes" against such phrases as "barren waste" to emphasize the connection between the Nile River and the lushness of the natural world. While it is true that the Nile represents simply an "ignorance" in the desert, in many ways, because it cannot actually nurture anything far beyond its banks, it is also described by Keats as a haven or sanctuary, something which can "beguile" those who look upon it and which rushes "happily" toward the sea in a celebration of greenery.

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Reverence and Misplaced Devotion 

The first octave of Keats's poem revolves around the idea of the Nile as a sort of god. Keats personifies the river, describing it as a "son of the old Moon-mountains" and a "chief" of those symbols of the Egyptian nation, the pyramid and the crocodile. The evocation of the crocodile is particularly important because, in Ancient Egypt, the crocodile was a creature worshipped as a god, fundamental to a number of religious cults. Keats explores the idea that the Nile has become more than a river: he, not an Egyptian, is addressing it using archaic language, as "thee" and "thou," precisely because the universal understanding of the Nile is that it is something more than a simple river.

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However, Keats argues, there are explanations for this reverence, and they are not all necessarily to do with the river's actual capacity to nurture and reward the country around it. Keats considers the idea that the "honor" paid to the river may be, in some ways, simply a function of the fact that it is the only river around. "Dark fancies" indeed may have helped stoke a cult-like worship of this river, even though it actually runs through a "barren waste" like a streak of "ignorance," not truly enriching the lands around it. Because there are no other rivers in the area to compete with the Nile, it is perceived as if it were unique, but it isn't. 

In exploring these ideas, Keats is considering the theme of undeserved adulation, not only in the case of the Nile in particular, but also in a more general sense. He suggests that those who reach the Nile after a state of "toil" and feel it is the only place to rest will necessarily perceive it as greater than it is. However, he also compares the Nile to "ignorance," something which flows through the world around it without changing it. The poem invites questions about the nature of reverence and the extent to which we tend to worship things and people which do not deserve such honor from us.

Fruitfulness and Scarcity 

In this poem, Keats's primary focus is on the Nile River as the source of "fruitfulness" in a country which is otherwise characterized by "desert." His language focuses strongly on these two extremes, with words like "desert" and "barren" being juxtaposed against phrases like "green rushes" and "pleasant sunrise." The word "fruitful" is repeated, underscoring its importance to the poem. Although the Nile does not actually serve to eradicate the desert aspects of the country it travels through, it still remains a place whose banks are verdant, and it is able to serve as the "nurse" of many nations.

Keats's descriptions of the "green" Nile are partly elaborated upon to emphasize the idea that the Nile is little different from "our rivers," the rivers of England. However, Keats's lush imagery also underscores the idea that the Nile is a fruitful river within its context, even if that context is more desert-like and dry than the context of English rivers. While the Nile may not be any more unique than English rivers which do the same thing, its fruitfulness is more notable because of the contrast between that fruitfulness and the scarcity and dryness which characterize the Egyptian landscape.

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