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R.C. Fernando,
70B, Kudugala,
Ambatenna.
Teacher of English Literatue at Azhar College, Akurana, Kandy.
Phone 0714395240.
17th November 2016.
To the Editor,
Sunday Observer.

A detailed analysis of Keats sonnet To the Nile


The poem To the Nile by John Keats is a
remarkable poem due to several reasons. For one
thing, it is a poem about River Nile which is
situated far away from England where Keats was
born. Secondly, it is both about nature and the
poets 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. However, I believe that
this analysis will help the teachers as well as
students to surmount these difficulties and appreciate the real beauty of the this gem of
a sonnet.
First of all we must understand that this poem is a sonnet written in the Petrarchan style
which contain an ocatave (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 on a Grecian Urn.
One should also understand the historical and the geographical importance of the Nile
River in order to understand this beautiful sonnet. Historically, river 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 the Nile River. Geographically, it is the
longest river in Africa as well as in the world. The Nile River has two branches. One is the
White Nile (the longest branch) which originates in the Lake Victoria and the other
branch is the Blue Nile which originates in the 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 ends
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 much as nine countries
in Africa including Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Congo etc. The annual flooding of the Nile
River had become a blessing in disguise for the Egyptians, as it deposited the rich loam
mud on the banks of the river which turned it into a fertile landscape, ideal for

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agriculture. The building of the Aswan Dam and several other dams across the Nile later
helped to manage the flooding to a great extent.
The Nile River is also steeped in mythology with Hapi being its chief God who is
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 the God Nilus, the Greek God of the Nile River and the travel agues of the
English Explorers such as John Speke who undertook an expedition to the interiors of the
Dark Continent as it was then called.
Having said that, now I am going to analyze the poem line by line so that you can get a
better understanding of the poem. The poet begins the sonnet with the line Son of the
Old Moon-Mountains African! In this line the poet 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 the Sri Pada or the Adams Peak Mountain. As
I mentioned earlier, the two branches of the River 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 River 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 mountains. However, the
exact origin of the Nile River remains uncertain as the two lakes are fed by so many
tributaries. You 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? As you know the ancient Egyptians built pyramids as tombs
for the Paraohs (their kings) and queens. These tombs were made with huge blocks of
stones which were transported through the Nile river 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. Now to the crocodiles. Perhaps you may be aware that the 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.
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 also by serving as a playground for water sports. The Nile itself was
considered as a symbol of fertility, as according to the Egyptian mythology, the manhood
of the slain King Osiris was supposed to be eaten by a crocodile so that his wife who was

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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 an adjective fruitful as a noun. Thee
means an old term for you.
The third line is a run-on line meaning that it links with the fourth line which reads as A
desert fills our seeings inward span. Here the poet refers to his imagination which fills
with a dersert. Imagination is sometimes called the third eye but here the poet calls it
seeings inward span. Literally it means the inner dimension of our vision or
imagination. Taken together this line means that our imagination is filled with a desert
while we wonder at the fruitfulness if 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 the river Nile has nourished the dark nations or the Africans since time
immemorial. The Nile river has given life not only to one nation but to 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 which are scattered along the banks of the River. According
to the legends, Isis, the 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 river Nile has a certain magical charm that makes
people consider it as a holy river like the Gangese river in India which is the 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) and thus meaning the river is having a rest between land
and sky which does not make much sense. Was Keats referring to the Deccan plateau in
the central India from whence begin rivers such as Narmada and Tapti? Thus can it be a
geographical inaccuracy? I invite you to consider these questions. Even the writers of the
e book issued by the NIE have made the mistake of identifying Deccan plateau as the
source of the Nile River 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 or respectfully. However,
from the line number 9 which starts the sestet, we can see a volta or a turn in the line
of thought: The poets attitude to the Nile River 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 Ode to 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. This is aptly expressed in his Ode to the
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 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 which is 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.

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I am tempted to believe that the word happily contains a pun or word play 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 to
appreciate the fertility and the beauty of rivers at a time when they are being
increasingly polluted due to industrialization.

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