A detailed analysis of Keats’s sonnet ‘To the Nile’

The poem ‘To the Nile’ by John Keats is remarkable due to several reasons. For one thing, it is a poem about River Nile, situated far away from England where Keats was born. Secondly, it is both, about nature and the poet’s own imaginative power. Students find this poem somewhat difficult because of the elevated language used by the poet and the complexities of the Sonnet structure. I believe this analysis will help teachers as well as students to surmount these difficulties and appreciate the real beauty of this gem of a sonnet.

This poem is a sonnet written in the Petrarchan style which contains an octave (the first eight lines) rhyming abbaabba and a sestet(next six lines) rhyming cdcdcd. In the Italian or the Petrarchan sonnet, there is usually a ‘volta’ or a ‘turn’ of the line of thought from the Octave to the sestet. In this sonnet also, Line number 9 marks a change of thought. The poet seems to have awakened from his reverie or day-dreaming of the charms of the Nile and begins to reflect on the natural beauty of the river. The poet addresses the Nile directly, in the style of his great Odes such as, ‘Ode to Autumn’ or the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. One should also understand the historical and geographical importance of River Nile to understand this beautiful sonnet.

Historically, the Nile is said to be the cradle of one of the oldest civilizations in the world: the Nile valley civilization or the Egyptian civilization which developed alongside River Nile. Geographically, it is the longest river in Africa as well as in the world. The Nile has two branches. One is the White Nile (the longest branch) which originates in Lake Victoria and the other, the Blue Nile originating in Lake Tana in Ethiopia. Although shorter than the White Nile, the Blue Nile contributes more than 85% of the total volume of the Nile waters. The two branches meet in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and finally, end in Cairo, Egypt, where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea by forming a large, rich delta.

The Nile can be called an international river as it flows through as many as nine countries in Africa, including Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo, etc. The annual flooding of the Nile had become a blessing in disguise for Egyptians, as it deposited the rich loam mud on the banks of the river which turned it into a fertile landscape, ideal for agriculture. The building of the Aswan Dam and several other dams across the Nile later helped to manage the flooding to a great extent. River Nile is also steeped in mythology, with Hapi being its chief God associated with flooding, thus, bringing fertility and fruitfulness. Osiris and his wife Isis are also worshipped by the Egyptians.

Keats, being a lover of Greek mythology may have heard of God Nilus, the Greek God of River Nile, and the travelogues of English Explorers, such as, John Speke who undertook an expedition to the interiors of the Dark Continent as it was then called.

Mountains

The poet begins the sonnet with the line “Son of the Old Moon-Mountains African!” In this line he personifies the Nile as the “son” of the old African Moon-Mountains. In other words, The Nile originates from the Moon Mountains just like the River Mahaweli originates from Sri Pada or the Adams Peak. The two branches of the Nile, the White Nile and the Blue Nile are said to originate from the two lakes- Lake Victoria and Lake Tana in Ethiopia. However, these lakes are also, in turn, fed by streams flowing from the mountains. Therefore, it was difficult to ascertain the true source of the Nile although it was historically associated with the legendary “Moon-Mountains” , so called may be due to their semi-circular shape or because they were snow-capped.

The exact origin of the Nile remains uncertain as the two lakes are fed by so many tributaries. One might also wonder what poetic techniques are used in this particular line. One technique is inversion where the word order is changed or inverted. Here, the position of the adjective “African” has been inverted as it normally comes before the head noun, in this case, Moon-Mountains. Another technique is personification. The River is personified as the ‘son’ of the Moon-Mountains which are like parents. The next line is, “Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile”. Why is the Nile called the Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile? The ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs for the Pharaohs (their kings) and queens. These tombs were made with huge blocks of stones, transported along the Nile in barges to the pyramid sites. It would have been impossible otherwise to transport these stone blocks through the rugged desert lands stretching into hundreds of miles. Thus, it is right to call the Nile the Chief of the pyramids.

River Nile is the home to the largest species of crocodiles in the world. Especially, the banks of the Nile are teeming with these huge crocodiles who are also associated with the God Osiris legends. As such, we cannot say that the poet has used exaggeration or hyperbole in this line. However, the poet has used the technique of contrast here, as the Pyramids are non-living things while the crocodiles are living things.

Life

In the third line the poet says “we call thee fruitful and that very while”. The poet rightly calls the Nile fruitful since it is the river that sustains life in the Nile Valley not only by providing food from agriculture and fishing, but also by providing them with a mode of transport and serving as a playground for water sports. The Nile itself was considered as a symbol of fertility, as according to Egyptian mythology, the manhood of the slain King Osiris was supposed to be eaten by a crocodile so that his wife who was searching for the scattered body parts of the King could not resurrect him into life as that part was missing. In this line, the poet uses the adjective “fruitful” as a noun. “Thee” means an old term for “you”.

Imagination

The third line is a run-on line meaning that it links with the fourth line which reads as, “A desert fills our seeing’s inward span”. Here, the poet refers to his imagination which fills with a desert. Imagination is sometimes called the “third eye” but here the poet calls it “seeing’s inward span”. Literally, it means the inner dimension of our vision or imagination. Taken together, this line means, our imagination is filled with a desert while we wonder at the fruitfulness of the river. Thus, fruitfulness and barrenness exist side by side, another wonder of nature.

In the next line, the poet says, “Nurse of the swart nations since the world began.” It means, River Nile has nourished the dark nations or the Africans since time immemorial. The Nile has given life not only to one nation but to the several countries through which it flows. The next line starts with a rhetorical question.

“Art thou so fruitful?” This is followed by another rhetorical question:

“or dost thou beguile/Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,/Rest for a space ‘twixt Cairo and Decan?”

Here, Keats may be referring to temples dedicated to Osiris, scattered along the banks of the River. According to legend, Isis, wife of Osiris, built those temples to enshrine various parts of his slain body scattered along the Nile by his brother Seth who murdered him. The poet in these lines wonders whether the Nile has a certain magical charm that makes people consider it as a holy river like River Ganges in India, most sacred river to the Hindus.

The poet also sees the River having a rest between Cairo and Decan. Cairo is the place where the river ends and Decan must be the place where it begins. However, we get confused here since the word Decan in Egyptian lore refers to a group of constellations (36 to be exact) thus, meaning the river is having a rest between land and sky which does not make much sense. Was Keats referring to the Decan plateau in central India from whence begin rivers such as, Narmada and Tapti? So, can it be a geographical inaccuracy?

Questions

I invite you to consider these questions. Even the writers of the e book issued by the NIE have made the mistake of identifying the Decan plateau as the source of River Nile – a glaring mistake indeed, since we live in a world far more advanced (in terms of technology and knowledge) than that of Keats’. So far (in the octave), Keats has treated the Nile reverently. However, from line number 9 which starts the sestet, we can see a ‘volta’ or a turn in the line of thought: The poet’s attitude to the Nile changes from one of reverence to a realistic one.

“O may dark fancies err! They surely do;” What does this line mean? Well, literally it means that fancy or imagination can mislead us. This line reminds us of a similar line in the Ode to a Nightingale by Keats: Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

Here, also Keats is being critical of his own habit of day-dreaming or ‘negative capability’ as he calls it. According to Keats, negative capability is ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ However, he also appreciated reality or ‘truth’ as he calls it.

It is aptly expressed in his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ when he says,

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Thus, the poet now begins to doubt his “dark fancies” or his romantic imagination which took him to the exotic lands of ancient Egypt of Pyramids, Pharaohs and the great Nile steeped in legends. He now becomes more ‘down-to-earth’ and begins to explore the River from an artistic or aesthetic point of view. Next, he says :

‘Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste Of all beyond itself…’

Here, he may be wondering at his own ignorance or the ignorance of the Europeans whose ‘dark fancies’ about Africa consisted mainly of vast deserts and giant pyramids.

The poet has even asked “Art thou so fruitful?” earlier.

This obsession with desert, according to Keats, is due to ‘ignorance’ as the Nile valley is surely a fertile landscape, so fertile that it gave birth to the first human civilization.

In the last few lines we can see the typical Keatsian language, sensuous and very much alive to the beauty, sounds and smells of nature.

Thou dost bedew

Green rushes like our rivers, and dost taste

The pleasant sunrise.

Green isles hast thou too,

And to the sea as happily dost haste.

The poet begins to see the River in all its resplendent beauty in its majestic journey towards the sea. He compares the Nile to “our rivers” whose green rushes or the plants with long leaves are decorated with dew or drops of mist.

This is a beautiful visual image that appeals to our eyes. The river also tastes ‘pleasant sunrise’. This is a combination of visual and gustatory images. The river also contains “green isles”. The repetition of ‘green’ produces an effect of lush greenery which contrasts with the repetition of ‘desert’ in the octave.

The sonnet appropriately ends with the line: ‘And to the sea as happily dost haste’. I am tempted to believe that the word ‘happily’ contains a pun or wordplay since ‘Hapi’ was the God of the annual flooding in Egyptian mythology.

The poem is written in elevated language and it is rich in meaning despite the fact that Keats wrote this poem in a friendly sonnet competition with Leigh Hunt and Shelly on 4 February 1818, at Hunt’s house in Lisson Grove with a 15 minute time limit.

As a nature poem “To the Nile” makes us appreciate the beauty of a river and its value as a life giving source. We also learn how the people in ancient times worshipped the river as a God or a gift of nature. We also get some momentary pleasure by looking at the lush greenery and the beauty of the river in the morning.

The poem thus helps us appreciate the fertility and the beauty of rivers at a time when they are being increasingly polluted due to industrialization.

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