A Line by Line analysis of the Poem "To the Nile" by John Keats Plus a Visual plus a Sinhala Tranlation of the Poem

A detailed analysis of Keat’s sonnet “To the Nile” by R.C. Fernando, Teacher of English Literatue at Azhar College, Akurana, Kandy. Phone - 0714395240

I thought of providing a detailed analysis of the Poem “To the Nile” by John Keats which is prescribed for the O/L Literature new syllabus, as it is a poem students usually find difficult and for which there are hardly any explanatory notes available either in the internet or other sources. You might feel that my analysis is ridiculously long for such a short poem. However, I believe that this will help the teachers as well as students to read beyond the lines 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 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 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 seeing’s 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 “seeing’s 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 poet’s 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.

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.

 A paraphrase of the poem:

Son of the old African Moon mountains

Chief of pyramids and crocodiles!

We call you fruitful and at the same time

A desert comes to our mind

Feeder of the dark nations since the world began

Are you really fruitfull? Or do you charm

Such people to honour you,who, tired with hard work

Rest for a while between Cairo and Deccan?

Oh our vague notions may be wrong! They must be;

It is ignorance that makes useless waste of

All except itself. You do sprinkle dew

On green rush leaves like our rivers, and taste

The pleasant sunrise. You have green islands too

And hurry towards the sea happily.


A translation the poem "To the Nile" by Keats
(Prescribed for O/L English Literature) by RCF

නයිල් වෙත

අප්රිකානු සඳගිරින් උපන් පුතුනුවනි
පිරමිඩ සහ කිඹුලන්ගේ අධිපතිතුමනි!
අපි ඔබට සශ්රිුක යයි කියමු. එසැනෙකින්
පිරෙයි වැලි කතරින් මනෝමය චිත්රරය අපගේ
ජීවනාලියයි නුඹ කළු මිනිසුන්ගේ උපන්දා සිට ලොව 
සශ්රිකද නුඹ ඔතරම්ම? නැතිනම් වශී කළාද
ඔබ ඔවුන් බුහුමන් ලැබීමට, විඩාවට පත් ඒ මිනිසුන්
කෛරෝ සහ ඩෙකෑන් අතර මඳකට ගිම් නිවනාතුර.
හිතලුවක්ද එය අපැහැදිලි? එසේමැයි එය
මොහඳුරයි නිසරු පුස්සක් කරන්නේ 
එය හැරෙන්නට සියලු දෙය.සරසයි නුඹ පිනි බිඳුවලින්
කොළ පැහැ බට පඳුරු අපේ ගංගා මෙන්, රසද බලයි
රමණීය හිරු උදාවෙහි, ඇත කොළ පැහැති දුපත්ද 
ඇදෙන්නී නුඹ සයුර කරා හනි හනිකට සොම්නසින්.

Translated by R.C. Fernando

Here is the original poem:

To the Nile

Son of the old Moon-mountains African!
Chief of the Pyramid and Crocodile!
We call thee fruitful, and that very while
A desert fills our seeing's inward span:
Nurse of swart nations since the world began,
Art thou so fruitful? or dost thou beguile
Such men to honour thee, who, worn with toil,
Rest for a space 'twixt Cairo and Decan?
O may dark fancies err! They surely do;
'Tis ignorance that makes a barren waste
Of all beyond itself. 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.